Beach House Diaries: Vacationing by the Book

Posted Jul 3rd 2013 04:00 PMUpdated Jul 11th 2013 04:51 PM

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You don't see red-white-and-blue bunting in my neck of the woods; nor do you hear marching bands blasting Sousa's greatest hits. In fact, when you're happily marooned on Pictou Island, even Canada's own national holiday (July 1) sometimes slips by unnoticed. Yet each year, in the run up to July 4th, I do remember to honor the ol' U.S. of A -- and my family members there -- by ritually re-reading an American Lit classic: namely Walden, Henry David Thoreau's 1854 ode to fresh air and freedom. It seems a fitting choice, not only because the author moved into his cabin by that titular pond on Independence Day but because, in doing so, he inspired my own experiment in "the simple life" beside a bigger body of water.

Thoreau -- being part philosopher, part self-help guru, and part how-to writer -- covered still-relevant topics like gardening and having guests over. Plus he devoted an entire chapter to the rewards of reading, which I completely understand given that his entertainment options weren't much more limited than mine. You see on Pictou Island now, as at Walden Pond then, reading counts as a survival technique. With that said, even beach housers who have access to tech toys, waterparks and a plethora of boardwalk bars know kicking back with a book serves many purposes.

Aside from being the go-to activity on rainy days, it gives you a legit excuse to retreat inside when the mosquitoes are too thick for comfort; and it comes in equally handy when a bad mood makes you unfit for company ("no, I'm not ignoring you, I'm just at a really exciting part in my book!"). Reading is an overall license for laziness, too: after all, waking up at noon, moving directly from bed to hammock, then falling asleep again is perfectly acceptable provided you have a book as a prop.

At home, where life is so busy that folding laundry feels like a leisure activity, reading is low on my to-do list. Despite being a former English professor and a dyed-in-the-wool literature lover, it's hard for me to justify the time. Frankly, if it wasn't for my monthly book club meeting (which focuses more on gossip and wine guzzling than books per se) I mightn't manage to read at all. At the beach, though, I'm free to devour everything I can lay my hands on. The dog-eared, slightly musty volumes I return to annually are supplemented by shiny new novels, library field guides illustrated with drawings of indigenous marine life and a year's worth of magazines that I subscribed to but never got around to opening.

The paperbacks thoughtfully left behind by visiting friends factor in as well. These are particularly appreciated (a) because I always worry my stash will run out and (b) because they're frequently the sort of books I wouldn't pick up otherwise -- among them, political memoirs, spy capers, esoteric foreign translations and those guilty-pleasure potboilers that anywhere else would have me blushing 50 shades of red. (Renters should be on the lookout for this kind of eclectic, cast-off collection in their beach house since many have a shelf devoted to books discarded by previous guests).

From the get-go it was obvious that my daughter had inherited a literary appetite. Her favorite volumes bear the marks of repeated reading: the print on their pages having been smeared by sunscreen and potato chip grease or blotted by the remains of squished bugs. Moreover, the trajectory of her childhood can be traced through the series she gobbled up over successive seasons as her taste evolved from Archie and Anne of Green Gables through Harry Potter to The Hunger Games.

Her brother's boyish preferences, conversely, never extended much past Captain Underpants. I vainly tried to hook him on kiddy versions of old standbys, hoping the beach adventures of Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson would have built-in appeal. (I held back Huck Finn fearing he'd escape on a homemade raft. Lord of the Flies was also nixed). Then one soggy July my son stumbled on a spiral-bound book of card tricks. Over consecutive weekends, he practiced sleight of hand until his abracadabra routine was well polished. The real magic, however, wasn't his ability to make Jacks and Aces appear on cue. It was the power of a single book to transform a summer.

Next: 6 Tips for Summer Reading

<<Previous Week: Hosting Hazards
Next Week: The Dog Days of Summer>>

Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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