Here approaches summer, for me No. 47, when work feels vaguely optional and the evening light stretches close to 9 p.m. When kids are wiped out, sticky with Popsicle juice and sweat, and the voices of third-base coaches and teenage boys in cannonball contests mingle in the thick air, and books swell to play a bigger part of our lives.
The first summer reader I ever knew was my mother, circa 1975.
Searching for her on the well-populated shores of Avalon, N.J., I zero in on the back of a striped canvas chair sitting low on the beach. Above it hovers a cumulus of yellowy cotton-candy hair gently topped with a broad woven visor, dyed lavender. A cigarette hangs from my mother’s fingers, the smoke barely perceptible in the bright light. Her lips, as well as the nails of her fingers and toes, are coated with her signature color: salmon, a Revlon shade she committed to in 1974 and never second-guessed. Next to her sits a large tote from a Hearst sales conference my father attended and on her lap, a hardcover. The crinkle of the plastic jacket protector mixes with the white noise of drowsy waves rolling in below her. The edges where she holds the novel are smudged with coconut oil; the ’70s beach culture has yet to know SPF 50. As she reads, her feet tunnel into the warm white sand seeking out the cooler, darker stuff she knows is there.
After that one glorious week at the beach, she’s poolside with “The Joy Luck Club” as I take diving lessons, or courtside with “The Bean Trees” while my brother finishes tennis practice, or, if the heat is perfectly disgusting, in her Oldsmobile wagon with “Beloved,” leaning back in the front seat, every air conditioning vent directed for her relief alone.
Other summer readers find a park or a broad oak, maybe a hammock for the young at heart. Or a yard chair that they meant to replace or a twin bed with uneven springs or a bench that’s been graffitied. It matters not. The comforts are mostly intellectual.
Forty years later, a writer of books myself, here’s what I have to the say to the lot of them:
To the summer reader who snorts with laughter at Tom Perrotta, Tina Fey and P.J. O’Rourke and mops up tears reading Toni Morrison and Frank McCourt, who has walked Rajasthan with Salman Rushdie and the Sudanese desert with Dave Eggers and the New England backwoods with Stephen King, who learned greed from Tom Wolfe, fear from Tobias Wolff, advocacy from Naomi Wolf, who collapsed with Elizabeth Gilbert or cringed with Jeannette Walls, who has thanked God for David Sedaris, Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen, I say, “Me, too.”
Props to the page-turner who recalls her vacations by the books she read while on them, who writes in the margins, stars passages, keeps a quote in her wallet, who rations her reading toward the end of good book, who sends fan letters.
And may the sun shine always (wishes every writer I know) on the bookworm who pre-orders, picks up copies for friends, posts gushing online reviews, Instagrams book jackets, blogs about the titles on her nightstand or in some other small but crucial way keeps the conversations alive between writers and readers. How ever to thank the bibliophile who, instead of locking up the house, pouring a nice glass of something calming and slipping into a sitcom stupor, drives across town to listen to her favorite author read for an hour, laughs loud and has the writer sign a pile of books for the other great readers in her enriched and underlined life?
Oh and let’s not forget the reader who knows the name of the woman at the bookstore, who keeps the book club going after Tracy moves to Dallas and Missy drops out, who seeds the next generation of readers by plowing through the whole “Harry Potter” series with a child, or carts his grandson to the library to find out what happened next to that poor Wimpy Kid.
God bless the word nerd who credits reading with shifting a paradigm, recasting a relationship, upping a Scrabble score, who has nudged a spouse awake just to read a line aloud, who’s ever felt her heart rate slow and her blood pressure drop, who has been silenced or awakened, shaken or saved by a book, who has talked out loud to a character in a novel or thrown a book against a wall, as I once saw my mother do, or slapped one closed and said, “Exactly!,” which I’ve also seen her do, who salivates for the subversive or the satirical or just loves the sonic pleasure of those words side by side.
May we all settle in deep and take the offering summer extends: a bit of extra time to do the things that help us feel our humanity, that allow us to recede from — and reflect on — the sound and fury, forgo our good sense and indulge our sensibilities and above all, to connect, only connect.
Kelly Corrigan is the author of the memoirs “Glitter and Glue,” “Lift” and “The Middle Place.”