Nothing against wintertime reading, curled in a soft chair as the light dwindles in late afternoon; reaching up to snap on the lamp, which throws down a cone of light as the room goes from gloomy to black. The radiator ticks at the edge of your awareness. Ideally, there is something chilly about the book -- maybe it's as Russian and endless as Siberia ("War and Peace"?), or maybe it is emotionally austere, like the poems of Robert Frost, or maybe it's a classic of arctic exploration, like "Farthest North" by Fridtjof Nansen.
That said, however, summer is peak reading season. Reading takes time, and summer (at least in certain stages of our lives) is all about empty hours. Picture a boy of about 8 and his sister, around 10, on bicycles with wire baskets, pedaling through a sun-fried afternoon, sagging, flagging, toward the air-conditioned oasis of the public library.
Picture mom on the chaise with Anne Tyler; sister on a blanket with Harry Potter; dad chuckling at the politically incorrect things Dan Jenkins so cheerfully puts into print.
Summer is the time of paperbacks with covers curled after a humid night on the deck of the beach house. The time of fat books by racy writers -- full of adulterous spouses, killer sharks, secret codes -- rarely good, but quite handy for holding down a picnic blanket when the wind comes up.
A friend recalls a Summer Book:
"On a ship going across the Pacific in '65, an 18-day trip, I read Sartre's 'Age of Reason' twice (didn't even get up, just went back to the first page) and then 'Brothers Karamazov.' Walking up the dock in Okinawa, I thought: 'I'm a different person now.' "
Another friend: "Reading 'Huckleberry Finn' for the second time, as a teenager, not a kid, and suddenly deciding it was the Great American Novel. I can't tell you how angry I was when I discovered in college that that was the conventional wisdom -- I thought it was my own personal bond with the book."
Another friend: "Spent the summer of '88 or '89 reading the Andy Warhol diaries. . . . It all seemed very important at the time. Like a Q-source of all modern celebrityhood."
Reading can be a perilous enterprise if you're interested in the arts. A distressing percentage of art books read like the mutant offspring of a Hallmark card mated with a cell phone instruction manual. Painters, dancers, composers and actors may be geniuses -- but doing it and writing about it are two different things.
And the professors are often worse. Here are a couple of sentences from a recent history of 20th-century art: "This metaphoric transformation indicates that, contra Jacobson, Picasso is not bound to the metonymic pole. Instead, he seems to particularly relish composite structures that are both metaphoric and metonymic."
Books about art are famously esoteric, flighty, clotted with jargon, even dull. To be fair, the often hard and tedious work of creation is often done invisibly, between the artist's ears. And if the work is good, it becomes its own best expression -- nothing conveys a great song, a great ballet, a great painting, better than the thing itself.
Still, you want a good book for this summer. So today the arts writers of The Washington Post offer favorite books about favorite subjects. Books rich with sensation and pulsing with life. Books that open up worlds of creativity and wonder. Start browsing -- summer's almost here.