10 Decidedly Highbrow But Still Beach-Appropriate Summer Reads


We get it. If you’re a literary snob, choosing beach reading is hard. You want something that’s going to keep you entertained and happy while you work on your tan or soak up some much-needed vitamin D, but you can’t bear to waste your time (or risk your reputation) with something trashy. We understand, and so we’ve come to the rescue with a list of books, both new and not so new, that are beach-appropriate but still highbrow enough that you can talk about them later. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and we prefer to spend them reading fantastic prose, even if we’re in our bathing suits. Click through to see our list, and let us know your favorite highbrow beach reads in the comments!

Skippy Dies , by Paul Murray

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize because of its excellent prose about high school dances and nerdy fat kids, this druggy stunner is a sure bet for your casual highbrow beach reading. It’s a satisfying read to say the least, kind of a gossipy, hazy version of every book you’ve ever read about prep school. It’s also fairly gigantic at 672 pages, giving you endless entertainment for sun-soaked afternoons, and maybe even an excuse to stay out a little longer, even once the sun hits the horizon.

Once Upon A River , by Bonnie Jo Campbell

One of the most talked-about new releases of the season, this novel will be sure to get you some jealous looks from your fellow literary beachgoers. More importantly, it’s an adventure story that will keep you pinned to your towel. Sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, armed with her trusty rifle, “only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley,” sets off on a river journey through the wilds of rural Michigan in search of her mother. Margo has repeatedly been touted as the female Huck Finn, which means you’ll probably want to be her best friend.

Duncan the Wonder Dog, by Adam Hines

This 400 page graphic novel is a seriously brilliant work of art, dark and beautiful and utterly engrossing. In Hines’s world, animals can speak, but humans still hold dominion over all. The animals form groups and rise up against the system, and the result is a hyper-stylized, semi-allegorical wonder of a piece. Plus, graphic novels are perfect beach reading — you can just let your eyes fall across the page and absorb the pretty pictures. And then you can go play fetch with your dog.

Role Models , by John Waters

On the beach or anywhere, we can’t really think of anyone we’d prefer to have whispering in our ear than John Waters. Let him regale you with tales of murderers, sex-fiends and celebrities while you sip your lemonade and giggle uncontrollably. It’s like reading a really highbrow gossip rag, only, you know, written by John Waters.

Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, by Ben Mezrich

First of all, this true story about a NASA intern who tries to steal part of the moon for his girlfriend was written by the same guy who wrote The Accidental Billionaires, the book that inspired The Social Network, so you know it’s going to be pretty okay. An expert mix of romance and intrigue, this caper will have you looking up at the moon in a whole new way.

Luka and the Fire of Life , by Salman Rushdie

Sure, it’s supposedly at least partially a kids’ book. And in many ways, it reads like one. But you know what? There’s no shame in reading kids’ books, especially on the beach, where everyone else is reading novels fronted by Fabio. If anyone questions you, just tap the author’s name. Salman Rushdie? There’s no questioning that.

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War , by Deb Olin Unferth

If nothing else, Unferth’s descriptions of the heat in Guatemala will have you feeling like you got lucky even on the hottest days, unless you’re actually on a beach in Central America. But we think her wry, charming voice and no-nonsense portrayal of her travels will make you wish you were with her even in the worst of times.

The Waves , by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s most experimental work essentially chronicles the entire lives of six characters in one day on the coast. Kind of like what might happen if you were surrounded by chatty neighbors. Just hold up your book smile apologetically. They’ll get the message.

Swamplandia! , by Karen Russell

This dreamy adventure is perfect for a day at the beach, though it might make you think twice before you venture off the beaten path. A little girl from a family of alligator wrestlers sets off to find her sister, who has run away with a ghost, while their brother takes a job in a soulless theme park to try to save the family business. Touching and irreverent, it will keep you bemused and invested until everyone is safe and sound.

The Secret History , by Donna Tartt

Um, we would recommend this book for literally any occasion, but it seems particularly suited to beach reading (despite its wintry setting) because it’s just so hard to put down. That’s why we read those trashy beach novels, right? Because despite our best selves we just keep turning those pages. It’s the same with Donna Tartt’s masterpiece, except that the prose is also so good that you want to read every sentence twice. Go ahead, read them twice. You won’t regret it, even when the sun goes down.