I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that summer is my favorite season, but it’s certainly the one when my body and mind expect to spend their days writing, walking in the woods, napping, and reading during afternoon thunderstorms.
Thanks to some poor financial decisions on my part (chief among them not being born into inherited wealth), I won’t get to spend my summer that way for at least another twenty years.
So in the meantime, I have a few go-to books for my summer reading that somehow remind me of a lazier time of year. Some of them take place during the summer, and others I simply read for the first time during one many years ago.
In case you also want to go on a mental summer vacation, here they are.
“The Body,” by Stephen King (from Different Seasons)
This is one of my favorite novellas of all time, and it takes place over a Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure if I first read it over a summer, but it definitely resembled most of the ones I lived: going on reckless adventures with friends as a way to court danger and learn who we were. I did that by breaking into abandoned schools and climbing onto roofs and skulking around in the middle of the night, but if there had been a body to go see, rest assured we’d have gone looking for it.
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
If there’s such a thing as a cozy apocalypse novel, this is one. When the human race is decimated by a plague, grad student Isherwood Williams ends up being one of the smartest of a small group of survivors who slowly rebuild a new and better society while the remains of the old one decay around them. Like the best science fiction, it’s a thought experiment in possibility.
You know you’ve got a good post apocalyptic book when you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’d love to loot a library just like that.”
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke will never be confused with a great prose stylist, but he manages to convey awe and strangeness with a pleasant scientific precision. I first read this novel of transcendent first contact — the kind where aliens come and tell us of our greater galactic destiny — in a summer lit course in Science Fiction at the University of Florida.
After years of being a fan of science fiction, I’d set it aside to be a good English major focused on the classics. When I read this book, though, I literally cried to think of how much better it was at exciting my imagination than anything I’d been assigned in my major.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
During the summer of 1987 after my parents’ marriage had ended with far less violence than any of us expected, my mother and I took a vacation with a friend and her kids to Georgia and North Carolina. We did the usual touristy things like panning for (likely planted) gem stones at a “mine,” but what I remember most was the house where we stayed.
It was built on the side of a mountain beside a shallow creek. From the front, you could see miles of rolling green hills. From the large windows and porch on the back, you could gaze into the darkly inviting woods.
My friend Norman had suggested that I read The Hobbit, and that’s exactly what I did. To me, that forest in North Carolina is what Mirkwood looks like.
This Sweet Sickness/The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
I find it hard to choose between these books for a summer read. The Talented Mr. Ripley has the virtue of taking place mainly during the summer, but the protagonist of This Sweet Sickness lives a strange dream-like existence that sort of feels like one.
I read these for the first time in 2005 when I started having an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the life I was living. These are both books about men with deeply delusional and neurotic misunderstandings of reality, and they scared me at the time more than most horror.
I’m all better now.