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In Praise of Summer Reading
The beach read has a reputation as frothy, unimportant fare, but it’s more about a mood than a literary genre, and that depends on the reader. / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 24th, 2022
“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James, quoted in Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance
As the weather was turning warm, I began to plan my summer by mentally assembling my personal TBR (to be read) pile of new releases I’d been accumulating. As a contributing books editor and writer to Zoomer, I’m generally reading early galleys months before a book’s publication date. That’s hardly a predicament, but it does require a bit of curation (and a fair amount of restraint) if I want to be in the moment with a book. And I want that feeling most with summer reading (a.k.a beach reading), which is not about the location, or even the weather – it’s a state of mind.
Selecting the right summer-time books is, to me, like enjoying berries plucked at peak ripeness. In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, “I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer – its dust and lowering skies.” Put another way, switching gears and falling into a different reading rhythm around the summer solstice is akin to putting away the woolens and swapping plush fragrances for the bracing splash of eau de cologne.
In early winter, for example, I flagged an upcoming book to a few avid readers, declaring “it’s probably my novel of the summer.” (Watch for that title on my forthcoming Novel Encounters list for July.) I puzzled over my instinct to call it a quintessential summer novel, and started thinking about what, exactly, that might mean. The passage of time in summer has a logic all its own. So what do we want from a book in those long, temperate days (and hopefully, holidays) between July and September, and how does its flavour differ from the rest of the year?
Books have long been labelled with genres and sold to readers that way. The so-called beach-read moniker is the literary equivalent of seasonal headlines about getting “beach-body ready,” which implies inadequacy and is laden with body shaming. Like clockwork, my favourite riposte resurfaces as cutting rejoinder: “You have a body. You’re at the beach. Ergo you have a beach body.”
By the same reasoning, summer reading is any book you bring to the beach, but that’s not quite the end of the story. The idea of beach bodies and beach books share common DNA, both in the shaming part, and for their roots as a marketing construct. Lighter seasonal reading has historically been framed as lesser-than literature – even as a disreputable habit – and that intellectual sneer persists.
The phenomenon dates back more than a century, according to book historian Donna Harrington-Lueker, a professor of English in Newport, R.I., who wrote Books for Idle Hours in 2019. It traces the rise of summer reading to the 19th century, a pivotal time when North American print culture and tourist culture were expanding. The arrival of the steam-powered rotary printing press enabled a publishing boom, and made paperbacks and periodicals more widely and cheaply available. Her research encompasses correspondence, journals and trade publications, like esteemed New York publisher Charles Scribner’s Book Buyer periodicals and the African American press of the period. (Likewise, Publishers Weekly has devoted issues to summer reading since the 1870s.) It’s an interesting dissection of the well-established cultural practices around books and reading, and makes a persuasive case that the tastes and rituals around summer reading were – and remain – distinct.
With the dramatic rise of accessibly priced travel tourism in England during the Victorian era and America during the Gilded Age, summer leisure was no longer the domain of the elite, and a rising middle class embraced it as a path to perceived gentility. By accentuating the conspicuous leisure of reading, the newly minted middle class transformed it into a status symbol.
Publishers seized the opportunity to “redefine the otherwise slow summer publishing season … with light leisure-time reading that included a mix of escapist sensational fiction, risqué French novels, and backlist titles of steady sellers from established authors,” Harrington-Lueker writes. Summer reading soon became a part of literary commerce, and the culture, with the creation of lightweight pocket editions, because portability was an important aspect. Nowadays, it’s manifest in summer reading lists typically accompanied by an illustration of a brightly coloured paperback and a canvas tote.
Podcasts, gaming, streaming content and obsessively checking social media now compete for downtime attention, but in its earliest days, summer reading was marketed as the way to pass the time in transit, as well as fill up vacant hours at a resort or relieve the boredom of rainy days. That’s why holiday escapes are especially conducive to transportive reads, like adventure stories and suspenseful page-turners. Taking a page from that, I’ve been saving Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library, Anthony Horowitz’s new James Bond novel, With a Mind to Kill (set after M’s funeral), and Kirstin Chen’s long con, Counterfeit. Romantic books set in summer (or that unfold in resort settings) also became a summer tradition. Harper’s and The Atlantic magazines, for example, used their cultural authority to endorse summer novels by well-known authors such as Louisa May Alcott, and many vintage Harper’s covers of their summer issues depict women reading.
Romances still exercise a particular magic; Elin Hilderbrand’s wildly popular Nantucket novels are the contemporary exemplar. So is Every Summer After, the steamy new second-chance romance set in Barry’s Bay, Ont., by Canadian journalist Carley Fortune. The dock on the cover conjures instant longing for cool escapes and nostalgia for summers past. It came as no surprise to see Fortune’s novel debut on the New York Times paperback bestseller list within a couple weeks of its publication in May. Book Lovers is another romance in that vein, right down to its eye-catching cover, but I hardly need to tell you, seasoned summer readers, about the latest satisfying rom-com from bestselling American author Emily Henry. In our collective anticipation of holiday season, all three of her novels – including People We Meet on Vacation (2021) and Beach Read (2020) – are on the bestseller list again.
A Suitable Book
The cover of Books For Idle Hours features the 1894 William Merritt Chase painting, “Idle Hours,” with women and children in white muslin dresses reading in sun-dappled light on beach dunes. Harrington-Lueker makes the point that, through such depictions of the gracious feminine pastime, the target audience for summer reading was primarily woman. “A perfect foam of light novels rises when the flowers begin to be in blossom, and these hold pretty general sway until the frosts break up summer parties and close the seaside and mountain hotels,” 19th century Boston newspaper editor Arlo Bates writes (as recounted in Books for Idle Hours) in an essay about summer reading filling young women’s minds with thoughts of “new gowns and pleasing fictions, both airy and froth-like.”
Not everyone, however, agreed all this reading was a good thing; some considered amusing vacation books a danger to propriety. “I really believe there is more pestiferous trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in all the other ten months of the year,” one prominent reactionary minister wrote in an 1876 sermon that Harrington-Lueker unearthed, condemning diverting books as immoral. Yet I do not consider happily sobbing several times while reading Jane L. Rosen’s new summer novel, A Shoe Story – where each chapter is an excursion, pegged to a pair of designer shoes more fabulous than the last – counter to its affecting themes of late-in-life romance, life-changing intergenerational friendship and finding oneself.
Faced with this alarmist backlash of what “popular” novels might lead to, publishers doubled down and countered by marketing reading as a “respectable pastime” for young ladies. Manufacturers even got in on it, producing summer specific furniture like rattan chairs – specifically advertised for porch and outdoor reading nooks, complete with bookshelves built into their wide arms.
It’s a Mood, Not a Genre
There’s a great cartoon by English writer and illustrator Tom Gauld called “An X-Ray of My Suitcase” that captures the dilemma of the avid reader at holiday time. Gauld frequently riffs on reading culture and captures the idea that variety is key; in spite of summer editorials that suggest packing as light as the literary fare, one needs an assortment to cover every range of reading mood. (My vacation duffel generally includes a half-dozen swimsuits, two caftans, a pair of cutoffs and a dozen books.)
Lately I have been immersed in post-war Cairo, unable to put down Esmond and Ilia by the English art critic and historian Marina Warner. “I moved among my ghosts and rummaged about in the past and tried to find my way back through the darkness that wraps them,” Warner writes of being the unreliable narrator in a memoir, told through objects, about her glamorous parents’ unlikely marriage. Her Italian mother and English father met during the Second World War, and moved to Cairo, where her father established an outpost of the British book shop, WH Smith. I enthusiastically press Warner’s latest on anyone who was enthralled by Francine Du Plessix Gray’s 2006 memoir about her parents, Them.
Breezy novels, irrespective of genre and gender, are a yes, but a thought-provoking cultural or social history can also be a page-turner. Try Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women by American film critic Alissa Wilkinson, or Two Wheels Good, New York Times journalist Jody Rosen’s panoramic ride about how the bicycle transformed modern life. It’s also almost hot enough to sit by the lake and dive into a topical book I set aside for peak summer. In The Last Resort, travel writer Sarah Stodola chronicles of the origins and future of beach-resort culture, the evolutionary cycle of tourist areas and the impact of seasonal tourism. Your idea of a potboiler may differ, but at least we can agree on relishing the almost-illicit pleasure of reading on a weekday.
That leads me to the prevailing notion that books chosen to accompany our summer escapism from routine should be just as aspirational and freeing from everyday cares. The counter argument made in the 19th century – and now – is that summer’s indolence is the ideal time for sustained serious reading and engagement with social issues. I recently recommended Victoria Finlay’s Fabric, her new globe-trotting look at humankind’s complex relationship with cloth, the environment and makers throughout history, as a summer read. Similarly, I think By Her Own Design, the engrossing fictionalized life story of Ann Lowe, the Black designer of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress (included in my latest round-up of historical novels), is important as one of the most entertaining and edifying reads of summer. The author, Piper Huguley, is a Black American academic who specializes in historical romance novels about African-American characters. Lowe, the granddaughter of enslaved people, created a thriving business, but has been unjustly forgotten by history.
Something of this paradox is captured in a 1835 New England Magazine article entitled “Summer Philosophy,” unearthed in Books for Idle Hours, which may help guide your choice of warm-weather reading material. It begins by citing British philosopher Edmund Burke’s advice for less-experienced summer travellers to “live pleasant,” and suggests ways to cultivate equanimity. “Walk slow, talk slow, think slow, feed, read, write, dress, undress – in short live with studied and exquisite deliberation.”
Later this summer I’ll be back with a Big Read on a recent publishing phenomenon that has become my favourite category of summer reading (no hints!), with book editors weighing in and offering insight. If you haven’t already signed up, get the weekly Zed: The Zoomer Book Club newsletter to ensure you don’t miss a thing.
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