19 Great Summer Beach Reads (For People Who Don’t Want To Turn Their Brain Off)

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Does your brain turn off in the summer?

Mine doesn’t. Yours doesn’t. Everbody’s doesn’t!

Yet many of us still hold the assumption that summer beach reads are supposed to be airy-fairy steamy romance tales or paint-by-numbers Pattersons.

To that I say a big loud: No!

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going the other way and recommending you check out the latest 600-page examination of the Boer War. But I do think we should swing the pendulum back a bit.

So here are nineteen summer beach reads that I feel are fun and fast-paced enough to fit into your popping-into-the-pool plans and yet also will leave your brain with new perspectives and fresh ideas:

1. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

When I was a kid my older cousin handed me this book and said “Read it now and when you’re older it’ll mean something completely different.” Well, I finally reread this book. There’s a reason it’s sold 80 million copies. Really profound commentary on the busyness of society, what love really means, and the value of friendship.

2. Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

A completely hypnotic 250-page graphic novel sharing the bizarre true story behind Tetris. Yes, Tetris. Full of Russian KGB agents, the centuries-long Nintendo history, giant lawsuits, and screaming fans. If you liked the fast-pace plot of movies like American Hustle, you will love this. The time and love Box Brown put into this book is astounding.

3. Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living with his wife and 6-year-old son in Harlem. The book tells the story of him getting a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive just before the financial crisis hits. A behind-the-curtains tale of an immigrant experience we don’t hear about as often and (yes indeed) an Oprah’s Book Club pick to boot.

4. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

This is perhaps my most beachy book on the list. I had no idea Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame) was born to Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds who were basically the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the late 1950s. Here she tells a rollicking, radically self-aware story of the absurdist upbringing she had inside a world of Hollywood elite … while struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction.

5. The Moth or All These Wonders by The Moth Podcast

Picture your closest friends going around the red-and-white checkered tablecloth sharing their best true stories over late-night chicken wings. That’s The Moth. (Not to be confused with a moth.) There’s one from the woman who became David Bowie’s hair stylist. Another from an African child soldier asked to go to a paintball birthday party with his new classmates in New York. And another from an Indian guy standing at his white prom date’s door and being told by her parents they don’t want him in their family photos. The stories are insightful, addictive, and end without any smarm … but rather with an honest emotional candid of what life felt like, for that person, at that time. If you remember the Degrassi Junior High “freeze-frame” ending… that’s what they feel like to me. I feel a little moved by each one.

6. “Commencement speech books”

The benefit of reading commencement speech books is that you get them done in half an hour yet leave with a sense of perspective far beyond. Great for remembering bigger principles. Three favorites: Congratulations, By The Way by George Saunders, This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, and Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. (Do you have a favorite commencement speech I’m missing? Email me at neil@globalhappiness.org and let me know. I’m always looking for good ones.)

7. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

A super quick, tightly written, emotionally suspenseful parable of modern day family tensions against the backdrop of a globalizing world. First person narrative as struggling businessman Alan Clay travels to Saudi Arabia for “the one big sale” and revisits his life up to that point. One of the fastest Dave Eggers reads for sure.

8. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Did you ever listen to Serial? I only caught a couple episodes but Ronson’s writing style reminds me of the show. You hear his voice from above as he experiences something, goes on a journey to dig in, and then tries to make sense of it all. This book explores the history of public shaming and its re-emergence on a mass scale with the Internet. A great exploration of shaming history and wades confidently into the complex emotional issues surrounding how we think about power to the people.

9. Point Your Face At This by Demetri Martin

A perfect book for people who love the intelligent absurdity of The Far Side cartoons. Demetri Martin is a stand-up comedian and former correspondent for The Daily Show whose tiny cerebral drawings make you laugh and think at the same time. Here are one, two, three, four, five examples of his work.

10. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. The Fault In Our Stars? The Perks of Being A Wallflower? Sign me up. I think because those years are so formative I just feel the need to relive them over and over in different ways. Well, Black Swan Green is my current favorite coming-of-age story. David Mitchell had me at Cloud Atlas and this novel is blissfully beautiful while being a lot more beachy. We follow 13-year-old anxiety-prone stutterer Jason through a single up and down year in rural England in 1982. Unlike most of his other books Mitchell doesn’t shapeshift voice and characters in this one and I think the narrative voice is (somehow) even stronger as a result.

11. Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

This is a collection of non-fiction essays Wallace wrote for outlets like The New York Times Magazine and they are flabbergasting. The title essay is about Roger Federer at the beginning of his tennis career. It’s like nothing I’ve read before on sports. He has an essay on the seminal importance of Terminator 2. A collection of “word notes” on commonly misused words. And my favorite is his essay called The Nature Of The Fun which is about the emotional roller coaster of the creative process after having success in the creative process. (Brainpickings does a nice overview of it and this essay was almost singlehandedly responsible for the creation of my podcast 3 Books as you'll hear in Chapter 1 with my wife.) Any of those essays are worth the price of admission alone. Truly original, high-flying, mind-bogglingly good writing.

12. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Thickest book in my beach pile. Gotta have one brick in there. I have to tell you how I found this book. A few years ago I was chatting with a guy next to me at a bar. The conversation turned to books and I asked “So, what’s your favorite novel of all time?” and he suddenly peeled back the top of his shirt and revealed a gigantic tattoo of a tree branch. “What’s that?” I asked. And he said “East of Eden. John Steinbeck. This is a tattoo of the cover of the book.” I didn’t have a moment to really gather the fact that he had a book cover tattooed on his body before the bartender shouted “No way!” She came up to us and pulled up her shirt sleeve and revealed some indecipherable quote. “From East of Eden!” she said excitedly. “I got it on my arm.” My reaction was something like “If two random strangers who don’t know each other both have a book permanently tattooed on their body, then I really have to read that book.” Sure enough, it blew me away and I was sobbing by the time I read the last page. Long, fast-paced biographical type narration that twists and ties together with giant themes of fatalism versus free will sitting on top.

13. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

We need a comedown after that behemoth. This isn’t that Iron Man! It’s the original. An award-winning kid’s chapter book published in 1968 about a misunderstood giant iron man who arrives out of nowhere, tumbles down a cliff, gets buried by fearful townspeople, rescued by a little boy, and then ultimately rescues the planet. Phew! Wonderful book on so many levels. Thrilling storyline, beautiful writing, wondrous imagery. Sure, it’s for kids, but we’re all kids. If you liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you’ll like this.

14. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Fantastic love story told about refugees migrating from violence in a slightly futuristic world. The thesis is that we’re all migrants, either from place to place, or by standing still through time itself. Really fun quick read which pairs well with his other beachy-to-me reads The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia. (If you haven't read any of his stuff, I think I'd suggest starting with Reluctant Fundamentalist.)

15. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

The lone sci-fi on our countdown. And it’s a doozy. Elan Mastai is a writer and producer on This Is Us and this is his debut novel. It’s a fast-paced, mindbending time-travel book that reminded me of The Martian and Dark Matter. (Also great beach reads.) The pace of this one seemingly goes faster and faster the deeper you go with a few epic themes uncovered by the end. I can’t recommend it enough. Listen to Elan Mastai on my podcast 3 Books here, too.

16. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About The Meaning Of Life by Steven Hyden

Pearl Jam versus Nirvana, Biggie versus TuPac, Smashing Pumpkins versus Pavement. This could have been a Wikipedia style summary of musical feuds but it goes so much deeper. Written for music lovers so some details are skimmed in favor of trying to reflect the rivalry back on our own psychology and the sentiments of the moment.

17. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Imagine I was going to explain to you how baseball was played and I did it by describing how a tree gets carved into a baseball bat, giving you the biography of the guy who built the Green Monster, showed you a black and white reel of a radio announcer singing the national anthem, and then took you to an art gallery featuring close ups of dugout floors after a doubleheader. What the? Yeah, exactly. And that’s how this fascinating novel goes about describing the lives of its two central characters over the decades. A giant anecdote about one of their best friends over here, a little window into a date they once had over there. It feels kind of like watching Mulholland Drive. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

18. Will you please be quiet, please? Stories by Raymond Carver

If the world feels too full of words and you crave short stories that get right to it – try this one. Efficiency. Economy! Saying more with less. Have you heard that famous quote attributed to everyone from Blaise Pascal to Mark Twain: “Sorry my letter was so long. I didn’t have time to make it short.” (Actual history of the quote here.) If you’ve ever slaved away at a tweet – reading and re-reading, writing and re-writing – just to get it to fit into the tiny little box, then you know what I’m talking about. Why do I mention all this? Because this group of short stories has to be the most efficient writing I’ve ever read. Hemingway is an airbag next to this guy. Some of the stories are two or three pages and yet pack deep emotional intensity. (As a sidenote: This is one of David Sedaris's three most formative books.)  

19. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Sometimes I need my beach read to help me pause and recharge. I'm on vacation. And that means I'm between things. And that means I need to go deeper into myself to figure out which way to go next. This book helps. A simple guide to battling “Resistance” – the single word Pressfield uses to describe the set of emotions and barriers preventing you from doing work you love. Within pages you’ll want to drop everything and tackle a creative project you’ve been thinking about starting.

And ... there you have it!

My laundry list of fast-paced books to keep your mind stimulated and be pop-in-and-pop-outtable enough to actually read this summer.

Enjoy!