Beach reads and popular bestselling books are as American as the proverbial slice of apple pie, baseball, and backyard cookouts. Today, you can’t swing a fat, bestselling beach read or a loaded Kindle without hitting a slew of annual Beach Read lists. Everyone from Oprah to Entertainment Weekly are intent each summer on letting you know about the hot beach books of the year that will add a little more enjoyment to your vacation idyll.
Instead of looking at this year’s beach reads, we thought it’d be great to look back at those quintessential beach reads and bestsellers from year’s past. Most vacation beach houses or mountain cabins are guaranteed to have at least one of these books on their bookshelves – if not more. These books may not be the “it” book of the 2010s, but they’re still worth a good, fun, beach read.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
One of the earliest paperback bestsellers, PEYTON PLACE was a book that ripped away the polite, genteel veneer of a New England town to reveal the tawdry scandals and s-e-x going on behind closed curtains. PEYTON PLACE stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks. It sold 20 million copies in hardcover and another 12 million as a Dell paperback.
This fascinating Vanity Fair article – Peyton Place’s Real Victim – delves into how the bestselling novel impacted Grace Metalious’ life.
At the age of 30, Metalious began work in the fall of 1954 on a manuscript about the dark secrets of a small New England town. The novel had the working title The Tree and the Blossom. By the spring of 1955, she had finished a first draft. However, she and her husband regarded The Tree and the Blossom as an unwieldy title and decided to give the town a name which could be the book’s title. They first considered Potter Place (the name of a real community near Andover, New Hampshire). Realizing their town should have a fictional name, they looked through an atlas and found Payton (the name of a real town in Texas). They combined this with Place and changed the “a” to an “e”. Thus, Peyton Place was born, prompting her comment, “Wonderful—that’s it, George. Peyton Place. Peyton Place, New Hampshire. Peyton Place, New England. Peyton Place, USA. Truly a composite of all small towns where ugliness rears its head, and where the people try to hide all the skeletons in their closets.”
JAWS by Peter Benchley
Benchley’s bestselling novel JAWS was published in 1974, a year before the Steven Spielberg-directed movie was released and everyone was too scared to go swimming.
The title was not decided until shortly before the book went to print. Benchley says that he had spent months thinking of titles, many of which he calls “pretentious”, such as The Stillness in the Water and Leviathan Rising. Benchley regarded other ideas, such as The Jaws of Death and The Jaws of Leviathan, as “melodramatic, weird or pretentious”. According to Benchley, the novel still did not have a title until twenty minutes before production of the book. The writer discussed the problem with editor Tom Congdon at a restaurant in New York.
We cannot agree on a word that we like, let alone a title that we like. In fact, the only word that even means anything, that even says anything, is “jaws”. Call the book Jaws. He said “What does it mean?” I said, “I don’t know, but it’s short; it fits on a jacket, and it may work.” He said, “Okay, we’ll call the thing Jaws.
It’s impossible to just list one Stephen King beach read. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, King published a string of bestselling novels and every one was a bestselling beach read – CARRIE, THE SHINING, THE STAND, DEADZONE, FIRESTARTER, and many others.
CENTENNIAL or HAWAII by James Michener
Every beach cabin is required to have at least one James Michener novel – it’s a law. People who appreciate fine literature grit their teeth and often can’t finish a James Michener novel. His characters were often wooden with motivation simply to move the plot forward. But, Michener’s novels – history lessons with ponderous characters – were hugely popular in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. HAWAII and CENTENNIAL were only two of Michener’s many bestselling novels.
CENTENNIAL traces the history of the plains of northeast Colorado from prehistory until the early 1970s. Geographic details about the fictional town of Centennial and its surroundings indicate that the region is in modern-day Weld County. Since the novel was written, the Denver suburb of Centennial has been incorporated, although its location in Arapahoe County is far from Michener’s fictional town of the same name. Much of his book was based on the Weld County town of Greeley.
Many episodes in the book are loosely based on actual historical events in eastern Colorado and southeast Wyoming, which for novelistic reasons are brought to a single locale. For example, “The Massacre” is based on the Sand Creek Massacre which took place in Kiowa County, Colorado in 1864. Other parts of the book are loosely based on a family from Sterling in Logan County.
Centennial was made into a popular twelve-part television miniseries, also entitled Centennial, that aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979, and was filmed in several parts of Colorado.
THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough
THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough is another mega-bestseller from the 1970s. Published in 1977, THE THORN BIRDS is set primarily on Drogheda, a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback named after Drogheda, Ireland, the family saga focuses on the Cleary family and spans the years 1915 to 1969.
The book’s title refers to a mythical bird that searches for thorn trees from the day it is hatched. When it finds the perfect thorn, it impales itself, and sings the most beautiful song ever heard as it dies.
What has been your favorite beach read – from recent years or years past?