Literary Hub

The Best Ways to Read Over the Summer

The two most beautiful words in the English language this month are “summer reading.” They conjure up a delicious season of reading exactly what you want, when you want. 

For some, there’s pleasure in using these blissfully long days to finish a really long book, wallowing in prose by authors as disparate as Cervantes, Tolstoy, Auel, and Knausgaard. For others, there’s a thrill in doing “catch-up” reading—finally going down the stack of books you’ve wanted to read all year but couldn’t find the time (like those by people you know).

Some people see vacation-reading like the road-trip diet—guilty pleasures are not only permissible, but at the top of the menu. I remember spending one glorious vacation as a preteen at my Aunt Betty’s house, reading my way through her library of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. Racing through a bunch of adult bestsellers each day was my equivalent of a bottomless bag of potato chips.

As a uni-seasonal reader-in-the-sun (because I live in LA) and former travel writer/vacation expert, I’d like to share some hot tips for reading in the sun.

The place for summer reading—balcony, patio, treehouse, campground, beach blanket, motel poolside—is outdoors, in the sun (with appropriate shade). 

Situate yourself so that when you raise your eyes from the page, you can see the horizon, or a cloud or a tree. Reading at your desk is not reading in the sun, even if your desk is outdoors. We’re talking recreation. 

Don’t do it on your phone, tablet or LCD-display e-reader.

Washed-out screen. Glare. Ouch. But e-ink display readers can be your beach buddy.

Summer begins with nature writing.

Nature writing often gets forgotten in our busy, busy world. The 2011 anthology The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, is a good starting point: a generous two dozen selections inspire discussions of what we even mean by nature writing. Meanwhile, Thoreau’s Maine Woods transports this West Coast reader back to old-growth centuries every time.

For a memorable summer, mix it up.

We all have our go-to genres—mystery, fantasy, romance, pulp. To give your summer reading some definition, change up your reading list. Think of it as cross-training for the soul. Alternate between fiction and nonfiction all summer. First a novel or book of short stories. Then a biography or cookbook or art manifesto. Then fiction again. Have a stack of titles waiting or download as needed. You’ll find the titles reflecting and affecting your summer life—maybe you pick up Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring after a day at the museum, or maybe Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars sends you out to look at the stars.

“Situate yourself so that when you raise your eyes from the page, you can see the horizon, or a cloud or a tree.”

Speaking of short stories, now is the time.

Did someone give you a collection by their new favorite writer for Christmas or did you pick up an anthology of stories by queer writers and/or moms and not get to it because you have bigger (not better) things to read? Perfect. Now you can read for pleasure when reading’s not the only thing you want to do for the day. Read a story or two, then you’re early to mini-golf.

If you only have ten minutes on the patio each day, spend it with a friend.

We’re not all on vacation from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but just as a daily walk can give shape to your season, a daily dip into one writer’s mind offers a kind of companionship. Read a small portion of a single book each day and the cumulative effect will be a gentle constant. It will become your inner companion, a voice you hear in your mind as you go about your life. Try reading some “selected letters”— by Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, or even Seneca. Bit by bit, your world will be colored by theirs. Or step into someone else’s life for ten minutes by reading their diaries or journals. You’ll soon be “up betimes and to the office” with Samuel Pepys in 17th-century London or dreaming of a bear’s “furry death hug” with Isabella Bird in the Rocky Mountains.

Indulge yourself.

Spend the longest day of the year reading a book in one sitting.

Or roulette your way into a random exploration.

I found some of my now-favorite authors one summer when I read 26 books in a sequence designed to stop myself dithering about what fiction to select. I just decided to pick books alphabetically by author’s last or family name. I allowed myself re-reads as well as first-time reads, so at the start, I could ease in with A (Austen), B (Bellows), and C (Conrad). Then I abandoned caution and simply went to the bookstore and selected a book by Dai Sijie, which turned out to be the memorable Balzac and the Little Chinese Princess. I continued on through the alphabet, feeling remarkably free from having to decide. Next, I might try picking books by moving from country to country based on setting.

Support abundant reality and vicarious experience.

Playwright Luis Valdez spoke of his hometown library in rural California as his “only link to the outside world” and author Rita Mae Brown says, “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.” They’re just a few of the thousands of adults who credit their library with opening up their world. So let your kids check out all books they can carry this summer—that array of possibilities is more than a metaphor.

Shop their shelves.

Serendipity is part of summer reading. You’ll find your eye is caught by the shelf of books in a motel lobby that guests have left behind. Or you’ll poke around an indie bookstore and buy a book just because you like the cover. Or you’ll step into a coffeehouse and see a big bookcase stocked by customers who read and recycle. And libraries have their donated book sales. The latter is where I found a marvelous summer read last year, Pictures from an Expedition by Diane Smith, a novel about a paleontological expedition in Montana that’s informed by historic events in the months before the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Shop your shelves.

If you’re into summer projects, there’s no better time for setting up a “Little Free Library” in your yard or neighborhood and stock it with books you’d like to share. A two-year-old of my acquaintance walks with her mom each week to one of these house-shaped cabinets on a pole a few blocks from her home. She takes one book and leaves one book, in keeping with the movement’s philosophy. As far as she’s concerned, this little cabinet is “the library,” and each visit brings her joy.

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