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Why the ‘Classics’ Make Perfect Beach Reading

Paperback romance or Proust? Jack Murnighan, author of "Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits" (Three Rivers Press, $15, paperback original), explains why a literary classic is the perfect beach book.

Question: Why should we pick a classic over a book by Nora Roberts or James Patterson?

Answer: Let's be frank. Some people go to the beach, read three pages, look at people in bikinis and wet bathing suits and go home. If you're going to read three pages of something, you're probably better off reading three pages of Dickens.

Q: Why?

A: The funny thing about a beach read is that, normally, we think of a plot-driven book. But with a plot-driven book, you have to finish it to get the most out of it. A lot of classics are so good, sentence by sentence, and have so much intelligence, wisdom and humor in them that even if you don't make it through that much of it in any one day, you still can get really enriched from the process.

Q:What would you recommend for people who think classics are too stuffy?

A: If you're a guy, read "Beowulf." I call my book "Beowulf on the Beach" because I did catch myself reading "Beowulf" in a foldable chair in the Hamptons and really enjoying it. It's really short. It's only 70 pages and has a ton of action. So in some ways, it's a perfect beach read. It has a lot of violence and battle scenes, so typically men are going to like it more, although not exclusively.

Q: What else?

A: "Wuthering Heights" is a great book for women to go back to and read again. It's compelling, romantic, creepy, gripping and well-written. And if you know it was written by a woman who more or less was never allowed out of her house, you wonder, how did she came up with these crazy characters? How did she come up with all this drama and all this intensity? And you realize, wow, she must have been smoldering inside.

Q: What's the worst classic to take to the beach?

A: "Remembrance of Things Past" by Marcel Proust. I read all 3,300 pages twice on the beach, but it takes forever, and it requires such a level of concentration. If you have time and if you're doing nothing else, then it's the best book to read on the beach. But if you're living a normal life and only have a few hours - you've got to mind your kids so they don't get pulled in the undertow - that's exactly the wrong book to read on the beach.

Q: What's the funniest beach read?

A: Strangely enough, it's "Moby Dick." It's one of the funniest books of all time, and I'll stand by that. If you read the first two or three pages, you'll be blown away by how hysterical it is. Ishmael, the narrator, is just a complete cut-up having a great time, and you'll have a blast reading it. It's lighthearted, playful and goofy.

Q: What's the sexiest book to read on the beach?

A: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's a very sexy book almost start to finish. It's so warm and full of life and wisdom. It's exquisitely written. It's one of my all-time favorites. But if you read it on the beach, make sure you have an edition with a genealogy of names in the front so that if your attention wanders a little bit you won't forget which Jose Aureliano Arcadio is which, because there are a bunch.

Q: You say it's OK to skip parts in some classics. What's an example?

A: One of the best books to skip around in and read just a little of is "The Canterbury Tales." You can read a couple of them or you can read the sexiest, playful, funny ones. You can tear up your edition so you only have to bring only 20 or 30 pages to the beach, which makes it a lot lighter.

Q: What are you reading this summer?

A: I just finished reading Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and one of Dickens' last books that I hadn't read yet. It's a non-fiction book called "The Uncommercial Traveller."

Q: Are you going to read on the beach?

A: I'm hoping to go to Amagansett. I think I'm going to take "The Recognitions" by William Gaddis, a mega-hard gigantic novel.

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