Ah, summer! Days of lounging at the beach or by the pool, posting the obligatory Facebook picture of your legs stretching toward the horizon. Wait, what’s on your lap in that picture? Why, it’s Toni Morrison’s “God Help the Child,” or David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers,” or maybe Kate Atkinson’s “A God in Ruins,” bookmarked about halfway through — with a pen, of course, because, let’s face it, you’re a thoughtful marginalia type of reader.
Such is the fantasy of the summer reading list. Every year, right after Memorial Day, book critics, editors, celebrities and assorted culture mavens compile lengthy countdowns of the books we absolutely have to bring along on our summer vacations, assuming, of course, that we have the leisure time and disposable income to take such a vacation, that we don’t have to run around the beach taking care of kids or pets, and that we’re not in theme-park hell where it’s virtually impossible to read anything but the wait-30-minutes-from-this-point signs.
Pro tip: You’re just fine ignoring those lists and reading whatever you want this summer. The reasons are simple:
Summer reading lists are stressful. Presumably, many of us take vacations to relax, unwind, clear our minds. A list of required reading is antithetical to the entire purpose of summer vacations. We have to-do lists at work and at home. Do we really need another on vacation?
They’re hostage to the new. Who’s to say that a book that came out last summer isn’t still a terrific summer read? Or, God forbid, a book that came out 50 years ago? (See below for one of those.) But the lists usually focus on new books, often titles that no one — maybe not even critics — have had a chance to see yet. People who haven’t read a word of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” will strongly recommend it. (It’s out July 14, so you can get away with calling it one of the “most anticipated” books of the summer, even though it’s a meaningless accolade.) Group think settles in, too: Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” was not a hard choice to make among 2014 lists, and conservative readers in particular were inclined to nominate Lynne Cheney’s “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered.”
They plug their friends. If you’re notable enough to be asked to proffer reading suggestions, you probably have a bunch of friends who’ve written books, and whose works you now feel compelled to promote. For example, last year, Madeleine Albright plugged a Vaclav Havel biography by “my friend and current Czech ambassador to the United Kingdom, Michael Zantovsky” in a summer reading roundup, while Melinda Gates recommended Paul Farmer’s “In the Company of the Poor,” saying that “Paul Farmer is a longtime friend of mine, and through these pages, you can hear his voice and feel his deep personal connection to improving lives for people who are too often ignored.”
Lists become culture-war battlefields. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin was ridiculed recently for recommending only white authors in her summer reading list, going 17 for 17. (That’s great at the free-throw line, bad at the bookstore.) The Grio immediately countered with a list of 25 recent books authored by black writers. Huffington Post simply asked: “What makes reviewers like Maslin so lazy?” And BuzzFeed soon put out a summer reading list with 17 books as well — except no white male authors. At a time when the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has caught momentum, it does seem rather remarkable that Maslin would issue a monochromatic list, even if many of the books on the list were certainly worthy. But there you are, just looking for a few books to read, and suddenly you have to take sides in an ethno-literary slapfest.
There’s too much showing off. The kinds of books you find on the shelves of beach-house rentals — paperback mysteries, thrillers, old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books editions — are not the kind of works normally populating summer reading lists. No, you’re told to read Zizek, Keynes or Tocqueville. (Yes, last summer, Condoleezza Rice noted that she was going to re-read “Democracy in America” for the fourth or fifth time.)
If I take a vacation this summer, I will probably take along two books that have given me comfort and joy since childhood:
First is “The Long Secret” (1965) by Louise Fitzhugh. This exquisite sequel to “Harriet the Spy” takes place over the summer at a Long Island beach town, where Harriet and her friend Beth Ellen become entangled in the hilarious mystery of anonymous notes that are popping up everywhere, speaking harsh truths to the recipients. Harriet’s relationship to her father, kindly but distant in the first book, is illuminated in a late-night beach conversation. I’ll never tire of this book.
And next is “The Secret Adversary” (1922) by Agatha Christie. Not part of the Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot canon, this one is often overlooked but held me spellbound in my teens. A World War I backdrop, a secret arch-villain who could be anyone and a dash of romance. A perfect mystery for the beach.
But of course, you should disregard all summer reading lists — including this one — and read whatever you want. Have a great summer vacation!
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