There’s something about summer that stirs a longing within me. Not a longing to sunbathe on a hot, sandy beach or embark on a long trek in the mountains, or take an exotic vacation, though I enjoy those activities, too. This longing comes from deep inside, molded by years of positive experiences and deep emotional connections. It’s summer reading.
Summer reading feels different from reading any other time of year. Maybe it’s because we associate it with vacation and beach-going and long, sunny days. For me it’s partly that. But it’s also the leftover feeling from school days of being freed up from the obligatory reading and work required from September-June. I wasn’t a great reader as a kid. I had all I could do to keep up with the demanding homework load of my prep school and when I had free time, I was tempted way more by Lost in Space episodes on TV. My parents enforced a strict 30-minute/night reading rule, for which I was immensely grateful as I got older and started appreciating books more. It’s not that I didn’t like many of the books I read for school, but for me, summer was when I could curl up with a book in the heat of midday while rocking gently on a hammock or stretched out on a chaise lounge in our garden. Maybe because reading wasn’t for school and didn’t require extensive analysis in a term paper or exam, I looked forward to spending hours escaping into books. I didn’t even mind the required summer reading during high school summers. I probably never would have picked up Great Expectations on my own, or Brave New World, but since I had three luxurious months to get through them, I was able to savor them. Summer reading season started when my mom took me to the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton to choose a stack of books to pack for camp or vacation or to snuggle in bed with after work. I’d navigate the dusty aisles, arranged by publisher, finding the books on my required summer reading list, stumbling upon unexpected discoveries that promised excitement between its tantalizing covers.
More than anything from my childhood, that feeling of pure abandon through a book is what I find myself yearning for when summer comes. I can still smell the sweet, freshly-cut grass at the Chilmark Library at Beetlebung Corner remembering lying on the lawn reading Edward Eager’s Half Magic on a lazy afternoon. Years later, I can taste the sand in my peanut butter and jelly sandwich recollecting how I devoured The World According to Garp on the beach (and the weight of that behemoth hardcover book in my beach bag). One summer in college I fell so in love with One Hundred Years of Solitude, as soon as I finished it I turned back to the beginning and started it over again.
Many people have books they turn to repeatedly, reading a cherished one each year, or revisiting it every few years. For my college-age daughter the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter series are like comfort food, bringing a familiarity and predictability that soothe her in times of stress. For me, I find revisiting anything associated with summer reading comforting. Just seeing the covers of Misty of Chincoteague, The Pearl by John Steinbeck, or Rebecca can send me into a state of bliss.
There are certain books I revisit regularly to evoke the sensation of summer when I need it: Gatsby’s sensuous parties late into the night on Long Island Sound; Lolita lounging in her bikini in the back yard; Tess Darbeyfield eating summer strawberries; Jem, Scout, and Dill whiling away the dog days of summer vacation. Who could forget Harper Lee’s description of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
How could you not feel the heat of summer after reading this passage from Katherine Mansfield’s story, The Garden-Party? “They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. … Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds [of roses] had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.”
Edith Wharton is a master at describing summer, especially scenes of wealthy New Yorkers’ seasonal escapes to Newport mansions. One of my favorites is her depiction of a a small New England town in her novel, Summer:
“The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in separate beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. … At last they reached the yoke of the hills, and before them opened another valley, green and wild, and beyond it more blue heights eddying away to the sky like the waves of a receding tide. … They unpacked their basket under an aged walnut with a riven trunk out of which bumblebees darted. The sun had grown hot, and behind them was the noonday murmur of the forest. Summer insects danced on the air, and a flock of white butterflies fanned the mobile tips of the crimson fireweed.”
There are way more summer scenes I don’t have room for here, and many, many more I’ll never get the chance to read. I’d love to know what books evoke summer for you!