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Let's Go to the Beach:
A History of Sun and Fun by the Sea
By Elizabeth Van Steenwyk

Henry Holt and Company, 2001
$18.95 hardcover
144 pages

Dust jacket image used courtesy of Henry Holt and Company. So maybe it's not what most people mean by "summer beach reading."

Elizabeth Van Steenwyk explores the social history of the beach from ancient cultures to the present, but Let's Go to the Beach leaves something to be desired. Mostly she concentrates on the role of the beach as a place to spend leisure time, and the aspects she has chosen to emphasize at the expense of others seem uneven and subjective.

Obviously Van Steenwyk could not possibly cover everything in a single, short book, but there are notable absences. Disappointingly, she misses several opportunities to discuss in greater detail the plant and animal life of beaches. She never mentions lighthouses, another prominent and popular feature of the beach landscape. Snorkeling (one of her chances to discuss marine life) is passed over in favor of showier activities such as surfing, volleyball or body building.

She also has a frustrating tendency not to explain her points fully. A paragraph devoted to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, for instance, fails to describe just why the Midway there changed society's thinking about leisure time. And if Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived at the Pacific Ocean in 1805, is the "second most important beach in our nation's history," what beach is most important? Elsewhere she coyly teases. She asks the question "How many know what ooid sand is?" but gives no answer. And why couldn't those young ladies in the early Miss America pageants eat pickles? Van Steenwyk does not say.

The history and evolution of the bathing suit is pretty well covered, as is the development of highly commercialized beach attractions like Coney Island or the Atlantic City boardwalk.

The book is amply illustrated in black and white, but here again demonstrates odd choices. The fourth-century Roman mosaic showing women in bikini-like outfits is fascinating, and vintage postcards of sea and beach scenes are doubly appropriate. On the other hand, the portrait of Martha Washington is of dubious beach significance. And do we really need three -- count 'em -- photographs of Pudgy Stockton at Muscle Beach? At least she tells us who Pudgy Stockton is.

Dust jacket image used courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

Reviewed by Wendy Morris. © 2001 by Wendy Morris

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