Book cover
On the Beach
Nevil Shute

Emily Dickinson said she knows something is poetry when “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” I’m not sure what that meant to her, but I think I recognize the feel of it. The books I love the most do this to me. And honestly, these are usually not books driven by character and plot. There is some authentic quality to the books I love that goes beyond the story, to the point that even some books with almost no story at all thrill me.

All this to say, On the Beach is a very straightforward plot-driven book. It is the kind of book I would generally say was good, but didn’t take the top of my head off. And yet, ever since I read this two years ago I haven’t stopped thinking about it. So I decided to listen to the audiobook on a car drive with my wife.

It is a deeply affecting book. A love story that we know from page one is doomed. I suppose it has no power taken out of context, but this passage takes the top of my head off:

“Will you tell Sharon about me?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Maybe she knows already.”

She stared down at the pebbles at her feet. “What will you tell her?”

“Lots of things,” he said quietly. “I’ll tell her that you turned what might have been a bad time for me into a good time. I’ll tell her that you did that although you knew, right from the start, that there was nothing in it of you. I’ll tell her it’s because of you I’ve come back to her like I used to be, and not a drunken bum. I’ll tell her that you’ve made it easy for me to stay faithful to her, and what it’s cost you.”

I’m getting chills right now reading it again. And I suppose it is also remarkable that this book destroys the whole world, and in that white-hot place Shute has created—that place we call climax—it is not the world, but Moira that we cry for.