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— "That book," he says. "You can learn so much about San Diego, the bay, Coronado, before just about anything changed."

The second treasured book is Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotian, who was the first to do so, between 1895 and 1898.

"My fiancée's a librarian," Messinger says. "She doesn't believe in holding on to books unless they're really important."

But Messinger is not above snapping up windfalls. When one of Coronado's oldest residents died, a pile of her books were left behind. "I took a huge 1928 dictionary and an 1888 edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare."

It's one thing to own Shakespeare, another to actually read him. This is what sets the BSU's sergeant Bob Albers apart from the rest.

"I'm a big Shakespeare fan," Albers says. "I'm a regular at the Old Globe. I'll be going to their Summer Shakespeare Festival. It's great. They're doing The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth -- my favorite -- and A Winter's Tale this year. And before I go, I always bust out my Shakespeare, plus Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare."

Albers, who has a B.A. in public administration from San Diego State, also likes occasional "bubblegum for the brain," like Stephen King's The Stand. He'll devour Colleen McCullough. Novels like Caesar. But not quickly enough. "I can't keep up with her. She writes so much, she outpaces me."

So does his dad, Harry Albers. "He sends me manuscripts of detective novels he writes. I've just proofread Murder at Lake Tomahawk. He publishes them online as e-books. He's also turned me on to Thomas B. Costain. Canadian, 1940s. The Michael Crichton of the time. Those historical novels. The Black Rose, Below the Salt. It's Runnymede. Magna Carta. Great stuff."

"Uh, did I mention Bob's our resident intellectual?" asks Messinger.

At Ocean Beach, Eric Winter, who sailed around the world before he joined the San Diego lifeguards, says he reads biographies, adventures. "I like to read about sunken ships, traveling. But right now, I'm reading a biography of Johnny Cash, because he stood for the downtrodden." On his circumnavigation, Winter took with him Captain James Cook's 18th-century book Voyages of Discovery and the 1930s classic Mutiny on the Bounty, a trilogy by Charles Bernard Nordhoff, as well as books about pirates.

P.J. Liebig, one of his colleagues at O.B., is reading Jon Krakauer's latest, Under the Banner of Heaven, about Mormon fundamentalists. But the most fun read Liebig has had recently is Hunter S. Thompson's only novel, The Rum Diaries, written in 1959, published in 1998.

Imperial Beach's operation is smaller than San Diego's: maybe 40 lifeguards at the height of summer. Captain Robert Stabenow, 40, has been in the service since 1982. Off duty, like Lerma, he reads a lot of investment, leadership, management-advice books. He recently read Wall Street Money Machine: New and Incredible Strategies for Cash Flow and Wealth Enhancement, by Wade B. Cook, and real-life adventure: Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Kem Nunn's border-surfing/worm-farming novel, Tijuana Straits.

"I've always been into reading, mainly because of Mrs. Yandall, my elementary-school teacher at Harbor View," says Coronado's lifeguard captain Sean Carey. His perfect mile-and-a-quarter stretch of beach where Marilyn Monroe swam and Bill Clinton jogged has fewer rips and a more family-oriented crowd than, say, P.B.

In fact, Carey wants to write a book about Coronado beach -- its history. "There have been guys lifeguarding here since the 1920s," he says. "The Hotel Del hired the first ones."

Carey is into American history. He's just finished Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose. But he also likes fantasy, like Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, or "any Michener."

And Carey has one more project. He wants to start a lifeguard library in the new headquarters planned at Center Beach. He's collecting relevant titles like In Search of Captain Zero (Allan Weisbecker), a sort of surfer road book, The Book of Waves (Drew Campion, Art Brewer), and The Lifeguards, a book of recollections on San Diego lifeguarding in the '50s and '60s by Robert C. Baxley, a retired superior court judge and a former lifeguard.

Forty miles north, under the giant pier at Oceanside, lifeguards are hosing down their yellow trucks. It's a Sunday evening. Weekend crowds are finally thinning out.

"Desert island?" asks Warren Moak, 21, one of the summer hires who swells Oceanside's lifeguard ranks to 50. "I'd take the Bible. I'm a Christian." The books he's reading are school-related. (He's at Palomar.) Books for American Indian studies, oceanography; Steinbeck and Hemingway for American lit.

Kevin Bennett, 20, would also take the Bible. He belongs to a student Christian group at Palomar. "But the most interesting thing I'm reading is the screenplay for Almost Famous," he says. "It's for our film class. It's interesting to see the difference between the script and the movie. Besides, it's about Cameron Crowe, and he was a San Diego guy."

He's also following The Lords of Darktown, which was shot in I.B. "I liked it. The environment felt related to Oceanside," he says.

He and a group of students have already produced their own movie short, Cheese, Crackers, and a Machine Gun. He's in film class because "I think people are more movie-oriented these days. They'd rather see the story than read it."

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