Beach Books and Reading the Beach
When you live on an island, every book is a beach book. Here on Nantucket, I have to shake out each library book before dropping it in the returns bin. But I am sure there are a few grains of Nantucket sand that have made their way to Orleans, Osterville, and Cotuit by way of the CLAMS interlibrary system, little grains hitchhiking in the spines.
The beach is a perfect place to read a book, and this elbow of sand has inspired its fair share of writers, too. Melville, of course, will be forever linked to the island, although he didn’t visit until after Moby-Dick was written. Tennessee Williams spent a summer on Pine Street, in a rambling old house with blue hydrangeas. He wrote to Carson McCullers, told her he was dying and they had to spend the summer together. She got on the ferry, Williams lived, and they spent that summer writing and drinking.
There are more names, ones you would recognize from the literary canon and the New York Times bestseller list, who have spent time on Nantucket or even made this place their home.
And then there are the writers you don’t know, but may one day, the writers who are writing in the margins. They're writing in the hours before sunrise, or on their lunch breaks, or in the middle of the night. They write on the backs of parking tickets and on junk mail envelopes and in notebooks, jotting down ideas when they come, hoping they remember them when they finally have the time to write.
This is an island full of storytellers. The old men who spend each summer evening sitting up at the top of Main Street at the Pacific National Bank (named so for the waters where the whalers found wealth) share news of the day and spin yarns. On foggy nights when the streetlights begin to flicker on, you get the feeling this same scene played out nearly 200 years ago.
There is the fisherman who writes messages in wine bottles, dropping them over the side and into the sea. It is an experiment in wind, tidal currents, and connection. Letters come back to the island from wherever the bottle was found. I suppose every fisherman is at heart, a storyteller.
If you find yourself at the beach this summer with nothing to read, you can always read the beach itself. You can read the waves, to try to predict the size and direction of the breakers. On the north shore, you can read the boats on the horizon, the ferries as they come and go, the sailboats as they skitter across the water. You can read the wrack line, see what the tide has dragged in. Read the cliffs, the jutting, exposed pipes and utilities, and see what the tide has taken away. Read the beach umbrellas, the bumper stickers, the vanity plates of the passing Jeeps on their way out to Great Point.
Given these literary traditions great and small, it is no surprise that Nantucket’s library, the Athenuem, is one of the grandest buildings in town, a great Greek Revival structure rebuilt right after the Fire of 1846. All the trophy homes and luxury yachts that crowd the boat basin can’t hold a candle to the Atheneum. Even if I have gotten some of those books sugared with sand.
This piece aired as part of WCAI's special Morning Edition live from Nantucket on Friday, June 14th.