The cabin book is not to be confused with that other seasonal delight, the beach read. While the beach read is transient—meant to pass an indulgent afternoon or two and then be handed off gleefully to the nearest friend or family member—the cabin book is perennial. It’s a book that takes up residence in the corner of a cabin and is read and re-read by owner and guest until its corners are perpetually turned down and its pages are rippled with moist ocean air or damp with splashes of lake water from lazy days reading on a dock. Cabin books have a distinctive smell—a woodsy, mildewy combination of rain and sun.
Because cabin books stick around for years, even decades, they mark eras—both of lives and the world around them. There, stacked under the coffee table, are Spider-Man comics, Forever, and a copy of The World Is Flat.
In my family’s rustic A-frame in the San Juan Islands, there is a shelf of books that have been there for most of my life. Maybe a book is removed and a book is added once every year or two, but it is mostly a static collection.
In the past ten years, the additions have been few and all motivated by the desire to entertain children—a Curious George anthology, a book called Grandma Summer about a little boy visiting his grandmother’s summer house on the Oregon Coast (I couldn’t resist buying this simply based on his quest for Japanese floats, a quixotic journey that took up many hours of my childhood. We found one—once), the still blank Indie Rock Coloring Book, which turns out to appeal more to hipster parents than to their children. There are Archie comic books—Archie being the comic hero of choice for my sister and me, as well as all three of our children. Possibly my most entrenched memory of summers and rainy weekends on Lopez is being huddled by the woodstove, engrossed in the lives of Betty, Veronica, Reggie, and Jughead. My sister texted me a picture the first time she caught her daughter in the same position, reading an Archie annual.
There is the biography of Warren G. “Maggie” Magnuson, a copy of Treasure Island, copies of Superfudge and The Changeling (both, inexplicably, read repeatedly), Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, and several Agatha Christie mysteries. There are mysteries from the ’70s, including at least one Robert Ludlum paperback. The books that stay in the cabin are different from the books that are simply consumed in the cabin. They’re not necessarily the best books or the most life changing, but something about them makes for multiple reads, and they just feel right in the cabin. Others have simply been there so long, they seem part of the place.
Mysteries by Agatha Christie—or pretty much anyone else—feel right in a cabin. Strangely, political biographies do too. My friend pointed out as I mulled over the consistent presence of the “Maggie” biography that the political biography at her parents’ cabin was Hillary Clinton’s.
Children’s books that are either especially engaging (Superfudge, apparently) or magical (certainly The Changeling) belong at cabins. I always remember my favorite books at the cabin of my best Lopez friend: Danny, the Champion of the World and One Morning in Maine. These evoke all the coziness and salty, woodsy adventure of summer vacation—and I read them nestled in a pillowed nook in their cabin while their family went about their business around me, wondering, I’m sure, why I wasn’t at my own cabin.
The place of honor at our cabin is held for the books that are specifically of the place. There is the 1971 edition of Saltwater Fishing in Washington, which my father kept as aspirational reading (we fished, but he rarely caught anything), and Marine Shells of the Pacific Coast, a slim volume filled with photographs of limpets and clam shells with neatly typed taxonomic descriptions, as well as helpful hints for finding and identifying them.
My favorite Lopez book has been read so many times that it’s disintegrating. According to the inscription on the title page dated August 1974, Edible? Incredible! was given to my parents by friends to thank them for “sharing your cabin with us in this delightful vacation spot.”
Edible? Incredible! covers much of the same territory as Marine Shells of the Pacific Coast, with sections on limpets, clams, and scallops, but instead of just dry taxonomic information, it provides details on catching and cooking these delicacies. For limpets, a shellfish I actually have never eaten, they provide a sort of recipe for broiling them in margarine, garlic salt, and parsley but note, “We have known people who dig the meat out with their fingers and eat it raw.”
The book provides all the ins and outs of eating crabs and clams, and even octopus, but the magical part is in all the less typical cuts of sea life. It is the descriptions of cooking and eating sea lettuce and gooseneck barnacles and, best of all, sea cucumbers that have kept this book in its number-one position.
At the very end of the book are several bonus recipes, including “A Version of Nora Berg’s Casserole.” Nora Berg, it seems, was a beachcomber in Copalis, and this casserole consists of egg noodles with crabmeat, beach peas (the book never explains what these are), and hard-boiled eggs, over which you pour mushroom soup and a dash of Tabasco.
My love of this book is such that one weekend, unable to find it in the stack of books (my daughter, it turned out, had stored it with her coloring books), I felt perilously close to tears, as though its absence would somehow change the whole essence of our cabin. There was never a book so right for our 1960s-era Sears-kit A-frame, painted moss green and perched in the trees above the rocky beach. I love the fact that this book extols foraging for sea lettuce and kelp, and then cooking it with margarine and egg noodles.
Like our cabin, it is pre-ironic. It is rustic in the way Northwest cabins used to be—filled with cast-off furniture and moldy books that find their way in and never let go.