Even with sandy spines and smudged type, reading on the beach is a pleasure

I am writing this column from a beach in Cuba. My fringe has been slicked back by the sea. One half of my face is already the colour of cheap rosé. I am lying under a palm tree to save the other half from a similar fate. And I am reading.

Reading is glorious on any holiday. Reading is glorious full stop. But reading on a beach is something special – though I can’t speak for those who live on beaches, or close to them, as to whether or not this is a pleasure dulled by familiarity. Once you’ve lived in Oxford for years, you sometimes don’t see the magnificent limestone building, just the Pizza Express within.

But few of us live on a beach like the one I am on. Where the sand is just about as pale as my usual skin colour and the water is so clear it could keep no secrets. Here, to crack open a fresh book, airport-bought, is to mingle the smell of salted skin and the glue binding of a bestseller. In this case, also a Man Booker winner.

There’s something about this olfactory combination that gets me every time. I might not experience it for a while, but, when I do, it’s like the old friend you can go months without seeing and, instantly, you are comfortable; you are savouring.

Reading on a beach pushes a novel to whatever its personal best is. Sometimes I think it’s the juxtaposition that flexes the imagination. Right now, I am in Cuba, sure, but I’m also – when my pink nose is in between the covers – in 1970s Northern Ireland. One place I’m not is in my house, and don’t I know it? It’s harder here for real life to intrude on my reading focus.

Being a nerd, I also like to take non-fiction books themed around wherever I am going. But it’s the fiction that the beach location elevates. Yesterday, my head was so far into a different decade that I hadn’t noticed the sun slide across so much sky. I couldn’t even hear the clashing sounds of beach sound systems – one of which, unfathomably, is always, everywhere, playing Macarena.

When you finish the first book, the bliss of being on holiday is that you start another right away. Time is presented to you, just the same as a mint on a pillow. When you are home, you will know these books and the trip they took by the sand in their spines and the smudged typeface and the still-sticky pages. You will say, possibly years from now: Ah, yes. Milkman. That was an amazing book. I read it in Cuba.

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