World Shores and Beaches: A Descriptive and Historical Guide to 50 Coastal Treasures by Mary Ellen S

This work claims to be a reference book about the world’s shores and beaches. The rationale is that Earth’s beaches are at least awfully interesting while most of them are somehow awfully “endangered”. Except for where humans are dumping sewage or spilling petroleum, all too common practices, they really aren’t endangered. Rather they’re in a perpetual state of flux and real estate developers and speculators find that damned irritating. They rant and rave, expecting “government” to do something to stabilize the shorelines and stop all this pelagic coming and going so they can make a financial killing rather than drown in the rising tide.

Since we perceive of shorelines and beaches as being endangered even when they aren’t, a good reference guide and directory to the world’s shores and beaches is something much needed. And that directory should be a little more detailed than the standard tour guide. In terms of content and layout, then, Snodgrass has the right idea. For each of her 50 entries, she starts with a description of location.

There follows, depending on the beach being discussed, consideration of its history, ecology, cultural significance and/or archaeology. The types of touristy activities available are often discussed. A couple of “contacts”, people or offices who have more information, are listed, and the entry concludes with a bibliography. A few black-and-white photos are scattered throughout the text.

That’s all very good and well, but as a reference book, this volume fails utterly. For starters, a description of the places’ locations is nice but maps would be nicer. In a couple of instances, for example in the discussion of Cape Hatteras where the emphasis is on shipwrecks, the text is incomprehensible without a map. Then there’s the bibliography, in every case so ephemeral it’s useless.

These are minor flaws. The killer is that there are only 50 entries, and there is no rationale for how they were selected. There are, for example seven entries for the United States, eight if one thinks of American Samoa as part of the United States. On the East Coast, Cape Hatteras and Vizcaya and Myrtle Beach are covered. The inclusion of the latter, a kind of skuzzy, low-rent resort, is puzzling. Its inclusion is justified, supposedly, by Myrtle Beach having invented beach music and a dance, the shag, to go along with it, and finally a local sub-culture to accompany both.

The problem isn’t, however, with what’s included, but what isn’t. Why these three East Coast beaches and not Cumberland Island? Or Cape Romain? Or the Florida Keys? Or the Chesapeake Bay? Or Cape May? Or — well, you got the idea.

For all of Australia, there is one area listed. Well two, if Tasmania is understood to be part of Australia, a fact that seems to have eluded Snodgrass. No Gold Coast. Nothing about the beaches at Darwin. Nothing about the Great Barrier Reef.

On the US Gulf Coast, there’s not a word about the Louisiana Coast, which really is in serious environmental trouble. Matagorda Island is presented but there’s nothing about the fact that Texas, one way or another, has all of its barrier islands protected, a magnificent achievement given that state’s rather sordid environmental history. How did they do it? A reference book on beaches and shorelines might reasonably be expected to tell us. Likewise, three of England’s beaches and one of Scotland’s are covered but the UK’s aggressive program of beach conservation isn’t covered

The absence of a rationale for selecting her various entries makes it impossible for a reference librarian to look a patron in the eye and say with confidence, “Ah, madam, that would be covered in Snodgrass.” For all we know, this is a listing of Snodgrass’ favorite beaches, or the first 50 beaches she found on the web, or possibly just her random list of beaches. The absence of any programmatic coverage, that is review of international, national or local programs of conservation or preservation, is simply disappointing, an oversight that further detracts from this book’s usefulness.

In the introduction, Snodgrass tells us that this kind of book wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Unfortunately, she’s probably right. There was a time when a reference book reflected a lifetime of devotion to a subject and to precise, demanding scholarship. Now we can turn on the computer and generate them on a weekly basis like the Sunday funnies only with less bother. Reference books generated this way aren’t much of an improvement over just going to the World Wide Web in the first place, and that is certainly the case with World Shores and Beaches. The book isn’t what it pretends to be, a useful addition to the library reference collection, and that being the case, it is hard to think of a good use for it.