Beach Reading Without Guilt

Time was, Americans were virtuosos of guilt. They knew they were no good. Grim divines told them so. Today's Americans have pretty much given up guilt as no fun and inconvenient to self-esteem. Still, they experience mild unease about the quality of their summer reading. Dostoevsky is too difficult, and Danielle Steel is too... well, there must be a middle ground. So here are some entertaining books you would not want to die without having read.

Vacations mean close confinement with loved ones, hence thoughts of murder and mayhem. So, first, the greatest crime novel ("Crime and Punishment" is something else) is George V. Higgins's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1972). The best spy novel by the best writer of such is Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" (1937). For a comic turn on crime, try the effortless excellence of Donald Westlake's "Baby, Would I Lie?" (1994) and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (1996). If the titles don't make you smile, this might not either:

"She wasn't the first woman who'd ever lived there, as various evidences had made clear. When she'd asked him about those previous occupants he'd looked vague and said, 'Well, some of them were wives,' which wasn't an answer that would tend to prolong the conversation."

In a related but distinct genre, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a founder of the formidable tradition of British women authors of detective novels. The tradition includes Josephine Tey (is there a better story of detection than her 1951 "The Daughter of Time"?) and now P. D. James, whose Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is back today where he belongs, on best-seller lists, in "Death in Holy Orders." Sayers's detective, the debonair Lord Peter Wimsey, reassures his wife about the seriousness of her craft, writing detective fiction. Such fiction, he says, contains "a dream of justice" in which villains are punished and the innocent avenged. Such a vision, he says, can be beneficent without being invariably true:

"Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion... But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that."

Carl Sandburg was a writer beloved by ordinary Americans. Granted, cliches run through his works like calories through cheesecake. (Critic Joseph Epstein said that.) But Sandburg, a literary utility infielder, turned versatility (poetry; a, shall we say, poetic biography of Lincoln; fiction) into stardom, making the cover of Time in 1939, and addressing a joint session of Congress 20 years later. His novel, "Remembrance Rock" (1948), is a gigantic gulp of American history in a celebratory mood.

Six more sinewy historical novels deal with communism and Hitler, and the catastrophe that cleared the way for them by cracking the crust of civilization. Bernard Wolfe's "The Great Prince Died" (1959) centers on the 1940 assassination, by one of Stalin's agents, of Trotsky in his Mexican exile. ("Could he adjust to a life filled with acres instead of continents, hours instead of eras?") A novel of ideas, it is a subtle exploration of communism as an intellectual contagion.

Explaining Hitler may be impossible; historians certainly have fallen short. Comprehending him may be not much, if any, less difficult, and perhaps not much different, but novelists have helped. Richard Hughes's "The Fox in the Attic" (1961) focuses on Hitler's failed 1923 putsch in Munich; Ron Hansen's "Hitler's Niece" (1999) is about Hitler's perhaps destabilizing relationship with Geli Raubal, who died, probably but not certainly by suicide, in any case by Hitler's pistol, in his Munich apartment in 1931.

Considering events rather than eras (that is, leaving aside the Reformation or Renaissance), perhaps the most important event since the first Easter was the First World War, of which communism and Hitler were consequences. Do not miss Pat Barker's war trilogy, "Regeneration," "The Eye in the Door" and "The Ghost Road."

But enough about hell. Speaking of Heaven, as Lord Wimsey was above, make room for G. K. Chesterton. After warming up with the stories of Father Brown, the detective-priest, savor "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" (1904). It is a hymn to particularities and the ordinary, and an exhortation to confound the "progressives" and perfecters who would dash around "with an axe, hacking branches off the trees whenever there were not the same number on both sides."

Speaking of whom... August, the last month before the academic follies begin again, is when to read Randall Jarrell's "Pictures From an Institution" (1954). It is a hilarious--and, alas, timeless--portrait of campus culture ("they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren't prejudiced toward moon men") and liberalism generally ("You Americans do not rear children, you incite them; you give them food and shelter and applause"). Jarrell on an infinitely broad-minded college president: "He was a labyrinth in which no one could manage to remain for even a minute, because there were in it no wrong turnings."

Finally, P. G. Wodehouse's more than 90 novels and short-story collections are like souffle: mostly air, unfailingly delicious. The stories about Bertie Wooster, his butler Jeeves, his cloth-headed friends at the Drones Club, the Empress of Blandings (a pig), are unblemished by seriousness. However, immersion in Wode-house's wonderful prose will improve yours. Begin with "Leave It to Psmith" (1923), if only because it has the most delectable opening sentence in all of literature:

"At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain."

If you would prefer a beach book that begins "Call me Ishmael," seek help.