ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If a vacation in itself is not enough, you can always deepen the experience by reading about the place where you are. Maybe a book by Hemingway while in Spain or Steinbeck if you're in California.
One of our editors, Ellen Silva, has been perfecting the style of vacation reading on the beach.
ELLEN SILVA: The beauty of reading books about beaches I'm visiting crystallized for me three summers ago. That's when I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick's "Mayflower" while sitting beside the bay in Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Philbrick's lush history of the Pilgrims gave me an entirely new perspective on the nooks and crannies of the fabled peninsula.
Inspired by one story about the pilgrims stealing a secret stash of Native American corn in 1620, I grabbed the book, hopped on a bike and followed the tiny signs to Corn Hill in Truro where the event occurred. The hill was still there, the corn was still missing.
That experience reminded me of other beach trips. At Venice Beach in California, I watched the skateboarders and bodybuilders at the beach there and read "Light My Fire" by Ray Manzarek. He's the co-founder and keyboardist for The Doors.
Manzarek's memoir took me back to the Age of Aquarius days of the late 1960s. His prose captures the trippy, carnival atmosphere of Southern California in those Dionysian times. The book made me feel like I might bump into a young Jim Morrison at any moment.
In Florida's South Beach, writer Brian Antoni was my guide. Antoni is a popular party host who lives in the glitzy seaside city. He also restored one of the famous art deco properties that line the heart of the historic district.
His book is simply titled "South Beach." The operatically complicated plot of this romantic melodrama and larger-than-life characters allowed me to float like a voyeur through South Beach's antique decadence.
Of course, none of these books really allow me to relive the history or fully enter the culture of these places. I'll never really know what it means to be a Pilgrim or a Native American in Cape Cod in the 17th century or a California hippie in the '60s, but reading them allows me to take up residence in these briny outposts and let some of the sun and salt seep into my skin.
When I returned to Cape Cod this summer, I unearthed a buried treasure of a book in the corner of a beach cottage just outside of Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was by Mary Heaton Vorse, a writer, labor activist and foreign correspondent who moved to Provincetown in the early 1900s.
Her memoir, "Time and the Town: A Provincetown Chronicle," was written in 1942. The book is alive with stories and delicious anecdotes about the artists and writers who summered there, but it also depicts the daily life of the gutsy Portuguese fishermen and their families. Reading it gave me a whole new perspective on a town known today for its thriving gay community, whale watches and beaches.
And so, during a recent day trip to Martha's Vineyard, I wished I brought along Yale Law professor Stephen Carter's novel, "The Emperor of Ocean Park," along for the ride. Much of the action of this intellectual thriller takes place in Oak Bluffs. I imagined President Obama whipping through it on his Vineyard vacation later this summer.
Reading books like these under an umbrella enriches the experience of both the book and the beach. They capture the local texture of some of our nation's most popular vacation spots and make visiting your favorite beach a deeper, more intimate experience.
SIEGEL: Ellen Silva produces commentaries about books for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. To find out how our audience voted on the best beach books ever, go to the new npr.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Old Cape Cod")
Ms. PATTI PAGE (Singer): (Singing) …to fall in love with old Cape Cod.
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