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Now that it’s officially summer, it’s time to switch to summer habits. I cannot keep up with the solstice calendar, so I tend to mark my seasons by random holiday designation. Summer starts on July 4th weekend, spring begins at Easter, fall is kicked off at Labor Day, and winter officially kicks in sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My pagan, solstice-monitoring husband always knows exactly what day marks the first full day of summer, but I just wait until the illegal fireworks keep me up all night and then start wearing white shoes and linen with abandon. Where I grew up (Mississippi), there were all sorts of dress codes associated with the seasons and you needed a chart to sort out what to wear and when. Woe to the woman who donned white trousers after Labor Day or to the man whose seersucker blazer was pressed into action too soon. Forget the temperature, the humidity (no one ever actually forgot the humidity), the sunshine, the wind; when it came to your wardrobe, you consulted the calendar and left common sense in the closet.
It seems to me that the same sort of (bad) logic often applies to summer reading. Critics and authors are asked each year to suggest books for summer reading or to tell listeners/readers what they’ll be reading over the summer. The responses seem to fall into two distinct camps. First, there are the those who recommend fluffy reading for summer. These folks seem to think that our overheated brains should not be further taxed by anything too challenging, and so they recommend a slate of 250-page thrillers or chick lit novels or variations on the following plot: mid-life crisis inspires exotic/dangerous/ill-advised foray into foreign travel/urban do-gooding/career-ending decision that ultimately leads to a great romance/self discovery/unexpected wealth.
Then there are the folks who regard summer as a vast period of free time perfect for tackling one good hard classic book that you may have missed or skimmed in school. Herman Melville’s 700ish-page Moby Dick seems to be the recommendation of choice in this camp, though any weighty, serious book will do. Of late, I’ve noticed a number of people vowing to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,which weighs in at well over 1000 pages including endnotes. (Here’s my advice about the latter: if you plan to read it, just do it. Stop making plans to read it and just dive in. It will be easier if you have a stack of post-it notes and two bookmarks handy to keep you oriented, but it will never be easy. Summer is as good a time as any, but no better than winter or fall.)
I have nothing against either of these summer reading philosophies, but it does seem just as silly and arbitrary as the wardrobe strictures mentioned above. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any more free time in the summer than I do in any other season. Also, my brain doesn’t necessarily yearn for lighter fare just because it’s hot outside. Nope, I read the same way in the summer as I do at any time of the year. Which is to say, I read whatever catches my fancy. I’m currently ending a binge of Jennifer Egan’s fiction which started with A Visit From the Goon Squad and sent me scrambling through her short story collections and novels as quickly as I could find them. Somewhere in that binge, I found time for the aforementioned DFW’s posthumously published The Pale King and Lighthouse’s own Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters. All completely worth my time and yet very, very different in tone and style and content.
I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m leaning toward Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which is getting great reviews and is, in fact, included on more than a few summer reading lists. Also, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has been on my list for a while. I’m intrigued by the premise of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Then again, maybe I’ll just flip through the shelves and see what appeals to me in the moment. My reading habits are much like my fashion sense, unpredictable and subject to change from one week to the next.
One thing is for sure though, I’ll be reading something all summer and into fall and through the winter and when the first buds of spring bloom. I’ve got a bookstore gift card burning a hole in my wallet right next to my well-used library card and whatever spending money I scrape together. I do not need another pair of white shoes or a linen blazer or a floppy straw hat to get me through the summer. Who cares what the weather brings? As long as I’ve got a pile of books on my nightstand, I’ll be ready for every season.