Summer books: Essential vacation reading

This past week people have contributed a panoply of thoughts on vacation books, from lists of books about war to the suggestion that I skip A Dance to the Music of Time Many, many thanks for so many good ideas, though I still think I’ll tackle the Powell one of these days. Shortly after that thread was posted, though, my producers for the Reading Room asked if I might suggest some of what I myself judged to be the essential books for summer holidays. As their wish is my command, I have mulled over this complex matter and produced the following list of the books one should pack for a two-week vacation.

1. A substantial anthology of classic short stories. My boyhood favorite, and incidentally a favorite of Stephen King’s as well, is The Golden Argosy, edited by Grayson and Cartmell. But there are plenty of others. An even more monumental tome is Tellers of Tales, edited by Somerset Maugham.

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2. An anthology of great poems. I grew up on Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language, but you might also take the Oxford Book of English Verse, or The Golden Treasury, or one of those volumes that select the 100 most popular poems of all time. Here, as Pound once said, is language charged with meaning to the highest degree.

3. Something light and frivolous. P.G. Wodehouse is the obvious choice. But there are some terrific comic novels by Joe Keenan (Putting on the Ritz), Terry Pratchett (any of the early Discworld books), and Donald Westlake (the Dortmunder capers, such as The Hot Rock, among others).

4. A solid work of nonfiction. This could be anything — the latest installment of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, a history of the Civil War (try Fletcher Pratt’s neglected Ordeal by Fire), or the diaries of Samuel Pepys.

5. A book of essays. Like the poetry and story collections, a volume of essays is ideal for short spells in the hammock or under the beach umbrella. There are excellent volumes of “great essays” compiled by John Gross and Philip Lopate. You might also pick favorite essayist and take along one of his or her books, say M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating or Martin Gardner’s The Night is Large.

6. A “genre” favorite. If you like romance novels, take along an unread Georgette Heyer. If you’re a mystery fan, pick up an old Maigret or one of Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit novels, or Mo Hayder’s recent Edgar Award winner, Gone.

7. Some well known classic you’ve always meant to read. It’s always possible that this July you might actually make a dent in Nietsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra or start and finish Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! It could happen. You never know.

8. A book about wherever it is you’ll be. If you vacation on the Chesapeake, pick up William Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers. If you’re visiting a national park, bring a field guide to the birds or the flowers. If you find yourself in Venice, have at hand Jan Morris’s guide to the city or John Julian Norwich’s history.

9. A blank notebook. As you daydream away the afternoon or glimpse strange sights, you just might be inspired to record your thoughts and observations, or maybe to sketch a view of that mountain or promontory. Always have a pencil and notebook in your pack or near at hand.

10. A fat paperback of crossword puzzles. If all else fails, you can just lean back and think of 11-letter words meaning a gargantuan appetite for life. How about Rabelaisian? What’s more, if you’re stumped, you can, quite naturally, ask that gorgeous hunk or babe for a 5-letter word, starting with F, meaning “erotic banter.”

Anyway, fellow members of the Reading Room, there are my categories for summer book essentials. Of course, an e-book reader would give you access to all these and more. But do you really want your expensive technology anywhere near salt water and sand? Or in your backpack while hiking in the Rockies? Better to tote along a couple of beat-up paperbacks, don’t you think?

Those are my thoughts. How would you fill in the first eight categories? Would you add any others? What was your best choice for a vacation book in past years? And your worst? Let’s keep the summer spirit going for another week, shall we? Before you know it we’ll all be drooping under the heat of the humid Washington summer.

— Michael Dirida

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