Personal Perspectives

Summer Beach Reads

A woman sits on the beach reading a book.
Fiction or non-fiction, short or epic...what are your favorite books about the ocean? (By Álvaro Canivell, Flickr name oooh.oooh)

Memorial Day is nearly upon us. We thought it'd be a good time to think about our summer beach reads. And yes, we're taking the phrase literally. 

(A quick aside: As a Minnesota-native I'd argue that winter is an equally good time to embark on an ocean reading list. Especially if the subject matter veers in the tropical direction.) 

As the Ocean Portal has done in the past, we want to hear about your favorite marine-themed books. Fiction or non-fiction. Short stories or epics. Old or new. We hope you'll share the titles and your thoughts about them in the comments section below. 

I personally have a lot of page-turning to do before I can claim to be well-versed in the ocean genre. The most recent book I read on the subject was Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, by William W. Warner. Technically that may not qualify as it centers on an estuary. I'm counting it though. I'd also recommend it.

Before coming up with my own reading list, I did a bit of research. 

The San Francisco Public Library has compiled an impressive list of water-related books for all ages. It's part of their 2011 an "Ocean of Summer Reading" program. And the website, Deep Sea News has a mix of ocean fiction and non-fiction on their reading list. 

I asked a couple of experts for some guidance as well.  

Nick Pyenson curates the Smithsonian's Fossil Marine Mammals. Here are a few of his favorites: 

John Steinbeck's Log by the Sea of Cortez is first on Pyenson's list. The book centers on a 1940 expedition around California's Baja peninsula that Steinbeck took with his friend Ed Rickets, a marine biologist. Pyenson says the story is fundamentally about scientists, their goofy dispositions and their pursuit of seemingly crazy ideas. Pyenson has spent many hours excavating fossilized mammals and says that Steinbeck also paints an accurate picture of field research.  

Given his interest in whales, it's no surprise that Pyenson recommends (re)reading Moby Dick. Countless literary critics have analyzed Herman Melville's 1851 classic, but Pyenson suggests thinking about the story as a portrayal of the "high times of Yankee whaling." As a paleobiologist, Pyenson's research often pre-dates humans and the technology we've developed to hunt large whales. For him, the tale of Captain Ahab's quest to kill a sperm whale offers insight on a significant period in the history of humans hunting mammals. 

Pyenson's third pick is The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by nature writer Henry Beston. Published in 1928, Pyenson says the book offers a poetic and effective portrait of a seascape, the life it sustains, and our relationship to it. 

Nancy Knowlton, author of Citizens of the Sea and the Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian, is on a work assignment in Sweden, but she sent me a couple recommendations via email. One of them is the newly published Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams. Her other suggestion is Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka’s The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival.

Here's my list for the summer -- it may carry over into the winter:  

  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky
  • Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin​​​​​​​
  • Billy Budd, by Herman Melville ​​​​​​​
  • Log by the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck​​​​​​​
  • The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

What titles are you going to delve into this summer? Let us know or share some of your old favorites with us. 

May 2011
Tags: Books