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This is a bit of a diversion from the blog this week, in honor of my vacation to Koh Samui that I’m currently enjoying.
So instead of books about Bangkok, I’m going to reveal my favorite books to get stuck into when you find yourself stretching out on a tropical island. Or, scratch that, any beach, any where.
Now, this comes with a caveat: I am a huge nerd.
You’re unlikely to find me outstretched, sunburnt lobster, with a pina colada and the latest chick lit that I picked up for $5 at the aiport.
But you see that girl outstretched, sunburnt lobster, with a pina colada and a 900-page biography of Chairman Mao in her hand? Yep, that’s me.
For me, the beach represents time to get totally embroiled in a new tome. I love the escapism of fiction, but nowadays you’re more likely to catch me getting stuck into a book on history, psychology or politics, with a little notebook at my side to catch anything I find particularly interesting or inspiring.
I told you: total nerd.
Anyway, here are a few of the best books I’ve been reading at the beach.
Simon sebag Montefiore
This is genuinely one of the most incredible history books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Just as the title denotes, this is a chronological history of the city of Jerusalem, from its earliest history founded under King David to the iconic religious epicentre it is today.
Montefiore draws on ancient texts, modern scholarship and even his own family history to piece together the jigsaw of Jerusalem. Reading it helped greatly in my understanding of how the ancient past has influenced the present and will go on to shape the future in the Middle East, and really lit a fire in me to find out more about the incredibly complex relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It’s worth saying that while I identify as an atheist — despite a brief and inevitably doomed flirtation with Christianity in my early 20s — I’ve always held an appreciation for religious history and culture, whatever side of the cloth that happens to be cut from.
I knew little about Jerusalem going in when I started this book but came out with a much richer understanding of the city, its history, main characters and its global positioning.
HIGHLY recommended — for the beach or frankly anywhere. Just don’t get it wet.
I’ve just finished The Phantom Lover — a collection of short stories centred around Thailand — and I was blown away by the rich story-telling and intricate linking between what looks like, at first sight, seemingly unrelated stories.
Not only is this a good book to read on a beach; it’s a good book to read on a Thai beach, being as it’s set in our fine Kingdom.
This comes with a warning though — it’s dark, creepy, and occasionally quite gruesome. Never gratuitously, but certainly enough to give you pause for thought. And the final story — more of a novella — which pulls in various strands of the previous stories, is centred around the epic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
It might be a little close to home if you’re reading it on the beach. Particularly if you’re in Khao Lak…
But irregardless, it’s a brilliant work of fiction and a highly enjoyable read that manages to open a window into the mysterious and supernatural world of Thai culture while it entertains.
I read this next to a pool in Hua Hin on Thailand’s Gulf, feeling overwhelmed about 6 months into self-employment. I had a metric ton of clients all across the world on different time zones and enough deadlines that my Google Calendar looked as though it was on crack.
I was doing too much but not being particularly productive or successful in what I was doing.
I was in a constant state of flapping.
This book — remarkable in its simplicity — brought me back down to earth.
It essentially forces you to confront the bare necessities in your life and cull all that is not serving those necessities. It’s trying to empower you to start saying ‘no’ and to take back control of your own life.
I found it a liberating read, made even more powerful by the fact that I was in the midst of sun, sand and sea and wasn’t sure how to take advantage of it.
You may not know this about me, but I can be really fucking verbose.
Seriously, reading back some of my writing makes me cringe. Long sentences, half-page paragraphs and just a general brain dump of polysyllables.
But Dave Trott’s writing is not like that.
He is concise, sharp, witty. He is an ad-man. Trained in the art of effective copy.
His books are a masterclass in how to write. Intensely simple, perfectly crafted — these are the advertizing industry’s haikus.
His chapters are almost parable-like, revealing a truth about business, psychology or writing, wrapped in a memorable story or anecdote.
Must-read for any writer.
Wolf Hall won the Booker in 2010 — quite a feat for a work of historical fiction — and it’s been one of my favorite novels in my roster ever since.
Centered on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel brings to life a character who the history books have left quite bland, paling against the accounts of his contemporaries, Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More.
This hefty tome covers the rise of Cromwell from blacksmith’s son to England’s most important courtier as he enables Henry’s divorce, excommunication from the Catholic Church, marriage — and inevitable fallout — to the legendary Anne Boleyn.
This is a totally gripping read and absolute catnip for history lovers who like a little fictional coloring with their facts and sources.
Reading this would feel completely at odds to sunbathing on a tropical island, but sometimes it feels so good to indulge in such comedy.
The beach is the perfect location for quiet contemplation and there’s no tool to encourage that better than the works of Seneca.
Seneca was a tutor to the emperor Nero in ancient Rome and is an important figure in the stoicism movement. His dialogues and essays, collected here, are absolutely bursting with sage advice and insight on how to live well and right.
I studied Seneca in the original Latin while at university, but I’ve actually gained more philosophical insight from this Oxford World Classics translation alone, at the beach. Probably like Seneca himself would have done (although in the Italian countryside).
I’ll be totally honest: I haven’t read this yet. But I thought it worth including as it’s one of the books I’m bringing to Koh Samui.
And it looks promising.
It explores “the deeper order of beauty in nature” and how aesthetics fit into the wider logic of our universe.
The Wall Street Journal reviewed it thus: “An expertly curated tour across 2,500 years of philosophy and physics . . . [Frank Wilczek] has accomplished a rare feat: Writing a book of profound humanity based on questions aimed directly at the eternal.”
I can’t wait to find out more.
What do you like to read at the beach?