I never went back-packing. While my friends were tramping around Thailand, ordering banana pancakes and existing on less money than it cost me to buy a sandwich and a Coke every day, I was learning how to be a monumental stone-mason (and by that I don’t mean I had designs on being the World’s most gifted stone-mason, I mean that I was the kind of stone-mason who worked on head-stones, carving the letters by both hand and machine). Although I dropped out early and never did become a qualified stone-mason (it’s really boring, and all the stone-dust you breath in can give you too many horrible diseases to list here) I don’t regret doing that instead of travelling: carving letters in stone is a great skill to have, and dabbling in it every now and then makes a nice change from writing and painting and begging people for freelance writing work.
Chances are that you went back-packing, but equally, maybe you didn’t. Either way, The Beach is a book which I strongly suggest you read if you haven’t. If I’d have been writing this blog postwhen the book was first published, I’d have probably assumed you’d read it, and I’d almost certainly have been right: the book made a massive impact on many when it surfaced, and was in every rucksack and suit-case in Asia and Europe at one point. Although most people think it was an instant smash-hit, the truth of the matter is that it was a slow-burner to begin with. This remained the case only for a short time, because within 8 months of publishing it had sold more than 300,000 copies and quickly became a cult classic that made the 26 year old author into both a millionaire and a phenomenon. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened after that, and if I do, two words: Leonardo Dicaprio.
[Note: It’s a good job I didn’t write this when The Beach was first published, because I doubt I’d have got my point across. In fact it’d have been illegible, I’m sure. (Judging by my calculations, at the time I was more concerned with jumping my mountain bike off bits off wood propped up on bricks in my street.)]
My fascination with The Beach came quite unexpectedly, years after the first edition went to print. I don’t recall exactly how it came about, but what I do remember is that at the time I hadn’t read many books and was daunted by the length of the novel. Its densely-packed text and vanilla pages were intimidating to say the least, and had it not been for whoever it was pushing the point (I think it may have been my brother, just after he returned from back-packing at Ko Samui — the place heavily featured in the book) I’d have likely not bothered.
Soon as I started reading, I knew this was going to be a book I would come back to again and again later. But don’t assume this was because I loved it instantly, because I know that wasn’t the case. Instead, The Beach had an oddly familiar effect on me which is hard to describe — not hypnotic, exactly, but more the kind of thing that I could hash out using words, over a glass of wine, but struggle to manage right now without having someone else to bounce the subject off. The Beach, for me at least, was like that: much like a certain cafe or pub you go to, just because you do, just because it feels right, even though there’s nothing seemingly “special” about it, the novel changed the way I thought about many things, the way I looked at the world and everything in it: adventure books, perception, and what makes friendship so important and crucial to hang on to. Love too, because despite the novel being intended purely as “entertainment” by Garland, it packs a powerful emotional punch which anyone who has ever passionately loved something or someone will be all too able to relate to.
I read that first copy — with the third-down (above) classic cover — until the pages almost fell out, and after I gave it back to my brother I went out and bought my own copy straught away; one that had suffered from a similar fate, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to own one, didn’t care what it looked like. It’s weird, I never get sick of owning this book. Just the other day I came across it in Oxfam — my favourite Oxfam, Mill Road, Cambridge, where my friend Mungo works — and just had to buy it. I kidded myself that it was because of the stupidly cheap price, but in truth I just didn’t like the idea of it sitting there going un-read any longermys. Oddly, though, I didn’t particulalry want to read it myself either. It was something else I wanted for the fate of that book, something I couldn’t put my finger on…and then I got an idea…
Working at the shop that day, volunteering, I mean, was Rachel Williamson and Lee Jen (I hope I got that right, sorry if I didn’t). I’d not met Rachel many times before — once I think, or maybe twice — and all I knew about her were a handful of things, among them: 1) she was a girl. 2) she was kind. Anybody who volunteers is kind. 3) she was friendly and that was nice, because I had known a “Rachel” at Primary School who was a complete and utter spoon and flicked some bogey in my hair. 4) she didn’t like reading books. Also working at the shop that day was Mungo and, as I mentioned before, Lee Jen.
When I arrived at the counter, Lee Jen and Rachel where having some kind of a discussion. Lee Jen was standing next to the counter, smiling away and explaining something, and Rachel was seated behind the till listening and paying attention in that considerate kind of a way that a lot of people could learn a thing or two from. By this time I’d come to understand the kind of dynamic the pair of them had, conversation-wise, so I listened in, knowing from the tone of the conversation that although it wasn’t private, it also wasn’t open enough to be able to walk straight into. This didn’t last long. I had The Beach in my hand and was gradually getting more and more excited about the prospect of talking about it.
What I heard next shocked me: neither of them had read the book, and only one had seen the film! That was all the ammunition I needed to jump on my very, very high horse and start demanding that they sort themselves out, so, for the next 5 minutes — I’m probably being too kind to myself, it was likely 10 — Lee Jen and Rachel had it drilled into them repeatedly until they both looked like they’d been slapped about by a whole army of books. Looking back I must have appeared pushy, but that was far from my intention. All I wanted was for them to understand that here was a book which really could change their lives. And not that this was the only book which could have that effect, but that books, in general, genuinely can.
Explaining this to Lee Jen was easy as she is, herself, a writer. On the other hand, getting my point across to Rachel was considerably more challenging. Because I was soon to find out that as much as Rachel is kind, she also very much knows her own mind. And as she put it, “I just don’t like reading books”. Yes, that most feared of sentence that every writer so terribly fears.
For a while there I thought that was it, and a kind of bookish panic came over me: the fact that I was going to have to take my new second-hand copy of The Beach home yet again, only for it to gather dust for another few years…
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Rachel got it. She understood. Maybe not completely, and she wasn’t converted — for want of a better word…I promise you I am not a one-man cult, honest — yet by any means, but she was now holding the book and looking at it. Flicking through the pages even: the first true sign that she was one step closer to reading.
And it happened: “OK,” she said, “I’ll try and read it, but I can’t promise anything.”
This brought up a tricky situation, as I realized that I’d just bought a book and was now giving it away for free — not something that I generally make a habit of doing.
But I had to let it slide, of course. If I can get one person to read The Beach and all it costs is £1 then that’s a price I’m willing to pay, because in so many ways, this book is worth much more than that.
Note: Rachel says she has started reading it, but that’s she’s putting her social life and uni work first, and that “you’re not getting it back until I finish it, which might be never, but that’s a risk I am willing to take”.
Here’s to Rachel Williamson and her new voyage of The Beach discovery, and may we all wish her well in finishing the book. No pressure then, Rachel!