The Academic Beach Read: An Oxymoron?

The following is a guest blog post by Steve Estes author of Surfing the South: The Search for Waves and the People Who Ride Them, available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

As the weather warms and the kids get out of school, perhaps you are daydreaming about the beach. If you’re lucky, maybe you live at the beach or a few hours away, making day trips possible. If you live further inland, maybe you load up the car for a weekend trip. You toss towels, sunscreen, and sunglasses into your bag, leaving just enough room for something to read. You scan the bedside table. There’s that recent spy thriller, a rom-com, an uplifting memoir, and then, down at the bottom of the stack, you see that academic monograph, you’ve been meaning to get to. Nothing says “beach read” like an academic monograph, right?

Photo by Dan Dumitriu on Unsplash

         In her history of summer reading entitled Books for Idle Hours, Donna Harrington-Lueker chronicled the way publishers invented what we call “beach reads” at the end of the nineteenth century. These books appealed to a growing number of middle-class readers with time on their hands and kids to ignore in the summer months. Fast forward over a century later and the recipe for beach reads still holds. Dramatic (even salacious) novels that capture readers’ attention and keep them turning pages. We risk a bit more sunburn than our modestly clad Victorian Era forebearers, but many Americans still turn to books to pass the “idle hours” of summer vacations. Why not monographs?

         I’ll tell you why. Most academic monographs are dense and difficult to read. They prioritize argument over narrative, theoretical interventions and methodological innovations over character development and plot pacing. University presses rely on a rigorous peer review process that upholds scholarly standards, but rarely rewards stylish prose. These are the assumptions about monographs that keep them out of most beach bags. 

 There is some truth in these criticisms, but academic monographs have also evolved. The cultural turn in history brought more accessible topics to the discipline. One could write about New Wave bands, film noir, African American cooking, quinceañera celebrations, or even the history of summer reading and be taken seriously as a scholar. In addition to increasingly accessible topics, more and more academic authors found inspiration in the style of creative nonfiction pioneered by journalists. So academic monographs began to borrow from the genres of true crime stories or suspenseful sports sagas to get readers to turn the pages even as they digested new ideas and arguments.

         As someone who shifted from journalistic to academic writing, I welcomed these changes not only as an author, but also as a reader and teacher. For years, I’ve listened to my colleagues complain that students refuse to read the books that we assign. While I don’t think this is a new problem, the combination of digital distractions and difficult academic readings certainly doesn’t help matters. Therefore, I am heartened by the growing number of academic monographs and articles that I actually enjoy reading. 

         The University of North Carolina Press has responded to this shift by creating a small trade division of academic books that make an original contribution to scholarship and attempt to reach readers beyond the Academy. As the author of one of these books on Surfing the South, I like to joke that they are pulp nonfiction—paperbacks that are disposable, portable, and priced to sell. But who knows? Maybe they’ll even make it into a beach bag or two!   

Steve Estes is an avid surfer and professor of history at Sonoma State University. He is the author of Surfing the South: The Search for Waves and the People Who Ride Them.