This time of year, if you hang out in reader-friendly places like bookstores and libraries or read things such as, well, most any newspaper, they are hard to avoid, those lists of suggestions for summer reading. I like lists of book suggestions--I like to see how many I've already read or heard of and to sneer delightedly at the inclusions I think are rot. But most of all I like them for the gems they sometimes reveal. Such lists are often how I am introduced to books that will later become some of my favorite reads. But I've never understood why such lists insist that a summer read must be light and diverting.
Oh, I understand the need for vacation reads or beach reads--the kinds of things that will occupy one slightly while what one is really doing is enjoying the sun and the sand. Or that will occupy one fully but without much effort while one is really waiting for the plane or train or bus to get there. But for most grown-up people, "vacation" means a week or so, and summer lasts a good deal longer than that. What is it about this time of year that seduces us (or just our booksellers?) into thinking that only the fun and frivolous will do? Is it a holdover from schooldays, when summer meant the release from obligations and heavy thinking and reading things one ought to read? Is it that the higher temperatures slow down our brains and make anything more taxing than the latest G.R.R. Martin too sweat-inducingly difficult? In his article on summer reads for the Barnes and Noble Review, Michael Dirda implies that it is both of these things: "No, what you want at this time of the year are the books that you can idly pick up, readily put down, then lazily pick up again, as you snooze in a hammock or toast in the sun." And he suggests many books that would be perfect for just that kind of reading.
I love to read that way, and some books simply can't be read in bits in-between catnaps in the sun. (The Wings of the Dove springs to mind.) So, suggestions for the snooze-and-sun crowd are welcome. However--and perhaps I'm the odd one out here--as much as I love a good snooze over a good book in the sun (or the shade), I can't imagine doing all of my reading in this way for three months any more than I can imagine eating nothing but grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob from June to September. And I'm just as likely to read in lazy snatches in winter: cuddled on the couch, under a cozy blanket, cat on my feet--yes? But no one ever makes "Winter Reading" lists or "By the Fire Reading" lists. I think they would contain much the same material as summer lists, with perhaps slight differences in setting to suit the season.
Dirda claims that summer is no time to do one's really heavy reading. "Save Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl for the bleaker days of February," he says. I'm sorry, but I call shenanigans. February is the last time of year anyone ought read Heidegger on purpose. Save Wodehouse and his ridiculous romp through the British a. for February, when you might really need it to lift you out of a winter funk. Do that heavy, demanding reading in summer when the light lasts longer and a refreshing walk through the brilliant sunshine can quickly restore your mood.
Perhaps the desire for light reads in summer reflects our fantasy of summer as a string of lazy afternoons when the pace of life slows to a crawl. Summer is sleepy, and summer reads must forgive us for dropping off while perusing them. But too much lazy, sleepy reading makes summer speed by. The pace may be pleasingly languid, but, come September, upon looking back over that much longed-for season, all seems a groggy haze. For me summer is a time for light, fun reads, yes, but it is also a time to settle fully into longer, more involving books. The long days, the lazy evenings--these are perfect for knocking off tomes like Vanity Fair or finally reading one of those monsters one just never seems to get to, like London: A Biography. Those lazy days of summer (if you're lucky enough to encounter any) allow time for the depth of concentration and contemplation necessary for some of those heavier reads. Gulp down those light summer reads on vacation, at the beach, before bed during the week. But set aside a couple of afternoons or evenings each week to read something that makes you slow down without dozing off, that makes you think, makes you engage, insists that you pay attention and get emotionally involved. You may just find that doing so slows down your summer and makes those coveted long days slip away more slowly.
Laura's Pretty Good Alternate Summer Reading List
(Compiled from Previous Summer Reads)
* Paradise Lost, John Milton
* Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
* Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
* Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
* Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
* Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
* The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
* The Ball and the Cross, G. K. Chesteron
* The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
* To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
* Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
* The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
* The Hamlet, William Faulkner
* The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
* Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
* The Chosen, Chaim Potok
* Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
* The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
* A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking