As Americans indulge their seasonal search for good beach books, they might profit from some advice on the subject from Theodore Roosevelt.
Hard-charging, hard-playing, always on the move, President Roosevelt might seem an unlikely source of wisdom on what to read while serenely sunning near the surf. But "T.R." was a lively geyser of opinions on issues large and small, and the modest matter of vacation reading proved to be no exception.
The former president weighed in on the matter in the April 1915 issue of Ladies' Home Journal. For several reasons, he made a promising candidate for the task at hand.
An incessant globetrotter with a penchant for safaris and other outdoor adventures, Roosevelt seemed to symbolize that emerging species, the Vacationing American. As a bestselling author, T.R. was also the pioneering superstar of a publishing industry that enjoyed a growing middle-class constituency of customers. And last but not least, Roosevelt was a reader extraordinaire – a bibliophile so beholden to the written word that when he pursued travel (his other ruling passion), a multitude of books traveled with him.
Though T.R. had an impressive résumé to support his recommendations for good beach books, he didn't use the term "beach book" himself. Clearly, a man who enjoyed vistas as varied as mountain ranges or the deepest jungles would have found a category called "beach books" too geographically limiting. Instead, in his Ladies' Home Journal article, Roosevelt referred to "books for holidays in the open."
Even so, in his exploration of books to be read on vacations under the sky, it was obvious what Roosevelt was after. He was making what might have been one of the American publishing industry's first summer reading lists – the genesis of the beach book.
Judging from his initial observations, it appears doubtful that Roosevelt, were he still around, would welcome the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham into his canon of leisure literature. True to form, Roosevelt begins his ideal vacation reading list on a note of high Victorian propriety.
"Of course," says Roosevelt, as though clearing his throat for a homily, "if anyone finds that he never reads serious literature, if all his reading is frothy and trashy, he would do well to try to train himself to like books that the general agreement of cultivated and sound-thinking persons has placed among the classics." To that end, he offers up Englishmen Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay as intellectual tonics that, once mastered, allow a man to "trust himself to pick out for himself the particular good books which appeal to him."
But then Roosevelt loosens his starched collar, and with the casual candor of a reader on vacation, he confesses to a few guilty pleasures. For one thing, he says, he loves a good plot. "I like hunting books and books of exploration," he flatly declares. "I do not ask anyone else to like them … I admit a liking for novels where something happens.…"
Like every beachcomber who likes a little escapism along with his tan, Roosevelt also admits a weakness for books with a happy ending. "It is only a very exceptional novel which I will read if He does not marry Her; and even in exceptional novels, I much prefer this consummation," T.R. tells readers. "I am not defending my attitude. I am merely stating it."
While most modern readers like their beach books light enough to slip into a tote bag, Roosevelt argues instead for heft. "I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips," he says. "In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last."
Mentioning Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Roosevelt also encourages readers on holiday to tickle their funny bones. "Now and then, one's soul thirsts for laughter," he observes. "I cannot imagine anyone's taking a course in humorous writers, but just as little can I sympathize with the man who does not enjoy them at times...."
Finally, T.R. acknowledges individual caprice as the guiding hand of good vacation reading. "A man with a real fondness for books of various kinds will find that his varying moods determine which of these books he at the moment needs," says Roosevelt. "On the afternoon when [Robert Louis] Stevenson represents the luxury of enjoyment it may safely be assumed that Gibbon will not."
That, in summary, is Theodore Roosevelt's advice for finding vacation books. Try a few classics. Embrace adventure and enthralling plots with happy endings. Bring enough to read while you're away. Remember to get a few laughs. And read what you like.
Not bad advice for vacation readers in 1915 – or any other year, for that matter.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.