Writers like Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante and Stefan Zweig can transport you to a different world, writes Laura Waddell.
There is a commonly held idea that reading in summer is synonymous with something light and mild, not too demanding or engaging; a beach afterthought as insubstantial as froth lapping the shore. But when we think of summer, in the most idyllic sense, our heads fill with colour and warmth. Hazy, diffused circles of heat creeping over snapshots of times past; moments of action frozen in time. I don’t want mundane days; I want everything in summer to be as full and vibrant as ripe fruit, even if it’s just the extravagant laziness of doing nothing at all to the fullest possible extent.
The quintessential summer, in my own mind’s eye, takes the form of one specific picture: sitting on my grandparent’s front steps, eating an ice pole, while the neighbour downstairs gardened and I picked paint off the railing to look at layers of colour underneath. A warm day with the flowers blooming, blue skies and distant lawnmowers, the sweetness in the air of my nana’s roses, suspended in time forever. When my mind wanders, thinking of summer, that moment is always there. I cycle through other scenes: the intention, if not necessarily weather-permitting reality, of beer gardens. My papa packing a flask of tea before a day out in the car. Touching the chilly North Sea as a wave comes in. Lying on my back reading, while there’s a breeze blowing in and nothing to do: in a caravan, with the door open and gas stove hiss of tea being made, or rain pattering on the roof. Sometimes I think about being suspended on a plane, with nothing to do but waste away time with a book before stepping out into unfamiliar humidity.
Nostalgia is the ultimate Instagram filter, but hope is close behind. When we daydream of the summer we want, we’re not thinking of nothing at all, but of a clearly defined atmosphere, one we want to plunge entirely into, different from our everyday lives rather than merely undoing them. Temporarily, we enter alternate reality, whether through memories or hope for how our summer might look. The city itself looks different in the sunshine. We rediscover gardens and parks. New ways of being are possible. I walk around looser in my skin, later into the day. We don’t want to drop out of reality entirely – other than a break from everyday chores, tedium, or anxiety – so much as we want to dive headfirst into glorious feeling. Sights and sounds, cut crass, chilled wine, and sunshine langour. Summer is intense, in the way that the orange of Aperol spritzes is intense, the smell of lavender is intense, and heat on our brow is intense. Deeper sleeps, longer lies.
It’s rarely so idyllic, all of the time. But the best stories, of course, also temporarily take us out of reality and set us down elsewhere. And so they are, I feel, the ideal summer reads – like for like. There are some practical considerations. Physically, you’ll probably want a paperback that can be chucked in beach bags or shoved down into a backpack alongside bug spray, water bottles, sandwiches and sunscreen. Books are made for using; even an object fetishist like me, who spends a lot of time looking at book cover design, still batters their corners.
If I’m travelling I might seek out something set in the destination ahead to double up on discovery. This year, ahead of a pinching-myself lucky work invitation to Vienna to celebrate Bloomsday – books have enabled me to travel to new places, literally as well as figuratively – I dipped back into Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s shorter stories, full of emotion, which often depict longing in settings such as hotel rooms and train stations, reflective of his status as a Jewish intellectual dispersed during the Second World War. His experiences have never felt irrelevant, and his storytelling skills are classic.
As I work in the book industry, for summer reading I often choose books I don’t have to review, write about, or recommend in any way. No publication dates looming. A dissolution of everyday demands. It’s a rare, weightless chance to browse shelves without looking for anything in particular, although inevitably, I’ll weigh myself down from trips to bookshops wherever I go.
Recently I did an author reading in Shakespeare and Co, the revered, ramshackle, cat-installed English language bookshop in Paris, celebrating the launch of an anthology called We’ll Never Have Paris which invited a sprawling number of writers to depict it as they see fit; a theme that emerges is reconciling the Paris of romanticised imagination with the everyday reality. While I was there, I plucked (with some help) Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies from a high and tightly packed shelf, a bestseller from a couple of years ago that I’d been meaning to read for ages. It’s a dense and lyrical book exploring one marriage’s successes, sacrifices, and hidden rages. While keeping cool from the record-breaking heatwave sweeping Europe, I also read Heartburn by Nora Ephron, a short, sharp satire of eighties New York and Washington society full of wit, humour, and recipes, and Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated Morgan Giles) which shows the city from a rare perspective, that of a homeless labourer asking himself whether years of gruelling work building Olympic stadiums had been worthwhile, capturing the everyday atmosphere of transient camps.
In the summer, with more time to wander and get lost, I gravitate towards books that will immerse me in their world; some of the very best hazy-dayed reading memories I have include plunging into Donna Tartt’s addictive New England intrigues, Elena Ferrante’s two fists full Napoleon epic that took me through all seasons, and Samanta Schweblin’s eerie Argentinian bio-horror Fever Dream.
Each to their own, of course. Wholeheartedly, I believe anyone should read whatever they want, should they choose. But for me, summertime reading will always be something I can travel through, as much as with, taking me to places I don’t yet know or deepening my imagining of those I do, but crucially, upending reality just like a strike of sunlight washing over my face is able to.