Review of The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth and Sea Shells’

The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth
Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker (Viking)

Sea Shells
Paul Valéry (Beacon Press)

Every summer, every winter, and often enough during the seasons in between, millions of humans around the globe make their way to the beach. It is, says Lena Lencek, "Nature's most potent antidepressant," a place to wallow in "sybaritic impulses" or to be narcotized by the natural rhythms of wind, water, sand and sun. Public or private, hidden corner for solitary musing or crowded place to see and be seen, this intersection of land and water has something for everyone. "It is to the beach," say the authors of this delightful dip into social history, "that we go to reinvent ourselves." Social history is a little bit like an Impressionist painting. Rather than being a quest for some indisputable, photographic truth, both offer a personalized view of some facet of human life. Facts are the social historian's colors, and the picture that each author produces depends not only on which details he or she selects but on how those details are then put in place.

Is it winter or summer? Bright or gray? Do we see a couple strolling on a sunlit shore? Or a weather-beaten boat bobbing be-neath a lowering sky? Lencek and Bosker write in cerulean blue and cadmium orange, splashing their pages with a dramatic vocabulary of crimson and viridian green. There are no swathes of umber or sepia, no cautious qualification or stuffy passive constructions. This is a bouncy, hyperbolic book, sensual and fun, and absolutely stuffed with an enormous collection of esoteric and entertaining detail.

The sand at Florida's southwestern tip has "the color and feel of un- cooked semolina," and a sunburn is "a flaming carapace of pain." Miami, during the early decades of this century, drew speculators "the way saltwater taffy draws flies." In 1878, Coney Island's Hotel Brighton Beach offered "champagne on draft at ten cents a glass," while in turn-of-the-century Europe, the Riviera served as a veritable Babylon where the "monied widows and neglected wives whiled away the night waltzing and tangoing with danseurs mondains hired by the hour."

Lencek and Bosker deploy their colorful phrases and scores of illustrations to explore three general themes. The authors are interested in how beach behavior reflects prevailing views of health, how beaches offer a refuge from the strictures of respectable society, and how attitudes about sex and the human body translate into standards of dress and undress at the beach. Two centuries ago, the English treated sea bathing as a mix of therapy and penance. They paid professional "dippers" to forcibly dunk their naked bodies into the frigid water of the North Sea and gulped down glasses of seawater for its putatively curative powers.

To the Romantics, sea bathing "particularly in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean" was a transforming experience. It released them from gravity and offered a sexually charged immersion into another world. Byron swam the Hellespont, and when Shelley was away from water he "languished so acutely that only by plunging his head into a washbasin could he revive his spirits." Their example added spiritual health to the catalogue of restorative and curative powers attributed to the beach.

The beach had its share of dangers, too. Drownings were common, as many beachgoers had only the most rudimentary experience with the water and were at best just marginally capable swimmers. And young women who came to the seaside to be cured of their melancholy or tuberculosis were - at least in the urban legends of the 19th century - tempting prey for "some handsome scoundrel, who all too often seduced and abandoned them."

During the first half of the 20th century very little of the human torso was actually visible on the beach. The length and cut of women's suits were regulated, and in some places men were forbidden to appear topless into the 1930s. Standards loosened somewhat in Europe after World War II, but on this side of the Atlantic, navels remained unexposed. Rather than donning bikinis (which, according to Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue, "revealed everything about a girl except her mother's maiden name"), American women forced themselves into "constructed" bathing suits that tended to conceal a good deal more than they revealed.

Spring break and surf movies. Beach house sprawl and seaside blight. Tans have gone from "the best thing that has ever happened to the American people" (in the words of New York City's Depression-era commissioner of health) to the sort of thing your mother warns you against. But even the cell phone won't kill the allure of the beach. "After all is said and done," the authors of this delightful impressionist survey conclude, "we still come to the beach to slip through a crack of time into the paradise of self-forgetfulness."

People looking to the seashore as a place to contemplate nature, life and humankind's position in a greater system may find themselves distressed by all the attention The Beach devotes to ourselves and our vigorous, unceasing activity. Paul Valéry's Sea Shells offers an antidote to that atmosphere of self-centered bustle.

A poetic essay written in 1936 and translated into English in 1964, Sea Shells paints in quiet observations rather than bright splatters of fact. The illustrations, 16 beautiful pencil drawings of shells by Henri Mondor, explore nuances of shading, curve and edge more than they portray biological reality. Yes, they show real shells: tuns and whelks, wentletraps and cones, miters and spindles and conchs. But like Edward Weston's black-and-white photographs of peppers, Mondor's drawings are free from distracting background and reveal neither color nor the slightest imperfection. Look at this form, they say, and marvel at it.

That, in essence, is the message of Valéry's delightful essay. Pick up a shell, he says, and revel in its elegance. "Run off by the billions, each different from the rest," seashells come in a fantasy of twisted sheets, spirals and helices. "Like a pure sound or a melodic system," he notes, shells "stand out from the common disorder of perceptible things." Who, a naive observer might ask, or what, could have made them? Yes, shells are made by shellfish. But what exactly does that mean? While "a seashell emanates from a mollusk," that emanation is neither an exercise of intent nor an operation of chance. Shells are rather the mindless recitation of an ancient lesson, perfectly memorized and metronomically reproduced by generation after generation of these oddly gifted creatures. A seashell reflects a life incomprehensibly distant from our own. A mollusk, like an ecosystem or the incalculable interplay of weather, wave and tide, "does not separate its geometry from its physics." Yet even the humblest of shells displays, says Valéry, "the sureness of execution, the inner necessity, the indissoluble bond between form and material" that human artists and artificers strive for. That mollusks, unthinking and utterly unaware, achieve such artless perfection is a phenomenon infinitely worth contemplating.

John R. Alden, an anthropologist and book reviewer, sunbathes on a granite slab in an abandoned quarry in Maine.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.