With the first day of summer officially upon us, the long, well-marketed season of mindless reading has arrived as well. There’s nothing wrong with summer froth, but, among the dozens (hundreds?) of “Beach Book” guides that have surfaced in the past few weeks, there is little in which to sink your intellectual teeth. Maybe most people don’t see a terry-cloth towel as the ideal perch to peruse Anna Karenina, nor the blistering sun as a welcome companion for a quick study of Heidegger’s Being and Time. But our brains don’t turn off in the heat, and, for most working folks, summer is the best opportunity for protracted periods of reading—the ideal moment to immerse one’s self in a book that packs some cerebral punch—and they needn’t be the brand spankin’ new, standard mass-marketing hardcovers that bookstores so desperately want us to buy. So, by the pool or on the beach, try some of this: prose that proves one can be enlightened and entertained at the same time. A guide to summer reading that won’t melt your brain:
The most obvious genre for an escape is travel writing. And the best travel writers do not merely transport us to a different locales—they also ask us to question our assumptions about those places. Sarah Vowell is one of the best tour guides for quirky, and at times downright weird, expeditions. Assassination Vacation, her morbidly enthralling exploration of President Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley’s untimely demises, is just as wacky as it sounds, and not nearly as depressing. In fact, as she skips about the country from assassination sites to graves to museums of anatomical oddities, Vowell reminds us of the pleasure to be found in the hows and whys of American history. If only every middle-school field trip had a guide like Vowell.
For more conventional, but just as hilarious travel-oriented fare, Bill Bryson’s harrumph on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, cannot be beat. It is really three narratives in one: the slightly foolish undertaking of two overweight, middle-age men determined to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail; the history of the Trail and its oft-contested ownership; and the pursuit of an entry point into Southern life. Though at times caustic and repetitious, Bryson’s knack for capturing the essence of a culture (complete with perfect imitations of a Southern drawl) transports his readers not only toward a better understanding of the country’s cultural diversity, but also toward the fragility of American wildlife.
Not quite a travel book, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—the tale of an amazing expedition up (and, only for some, down) Mount Everest—provides a nice way to beat the heat with page-turning narrative and bone-chilling descriptions of the Everest environ. A first-person account of a disastrous 1996 climb, Into Thin Air is much more than a man-versus-nature showdown. It is an unflinching analysis of how one poor decision can careen quickly out of control. Although it was published nearly 15 years ago, Krakauer’s gifted storytelling makes the material evergreen.
For outdoorsy non-fiction that’s closer to the ground, John Fowles’s The Tree is a remarkable meditation on the connection between man and nature. A gifted but, recently, somewhat overlooked novelist, Fowles (who also wrote The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman) lures readers in with the promise of a memoir about his childhood in rural England, then pivots to heartfelt ruminations on the beauty of a lush and wild landscape. While he makes a strong, rational argument to preserve and protect, it is the evocative force of his personal passion that ultimately persuades.
For those bent on self-improvement, Seven Pleasures is English professor and editor Willard Spiegelman’s foray into the self-help industry, though his recommendations are not the usual prescriptions. Instead, Spiegelman chooses seven activities that, in his opinion, advance happiness without forcing fastidious psychological regimes. These seven essays—on reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing—are delightful accounts of the simple pleasures life affords us if approached with the appropriate receptivity.
A fictional account of the life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is both a rambling idle through the enchanted woods of rural England and an offbeat quasi-biography. Set at High Beach mental institution (where Tennyson’s brother was a patient), Foulds’s lyrical prose and vast insight into the mind of one of England’s most enduring poets create an astonishingly uplifting look into the world of a nineteenth-century insane asylum.
Another novel set in the woods, David Guterson’s The Other has often been touted as a modern-day Walden. One man’s slow progression from nature enthusiast to utter recluse, the narrative of The Other is masterfully composed and gorgeously rendered. Is John Barry a crazy eccentric with wild, self-indulgent tendencies? Or is his asceticism an admirable life philosophy gone awry? Guterson does not provide answers or even judgment—instead, his tale is a reflection on the complications of friendship and philosophy in the modern world.
And lastly, if what you crave is edification wearing the mask of pleasure—a “check it off the list” book that also has a few thrills—then dive into Edith Wharton’s Summer, a perfectly crafted novella that is often forgotten in favor of the icy Ethan Frome. Frequently called “the hot Ethan,” Summer has all the drama of genre fiction and the perfection of Wharton’s succinct prose. Love, forbidden romance, incest, a runaway—Summer has it all. As in most of her novels, Wharton does not let her characters off easy, striking with a cruel sense of justice. Read it with a tissue and prepare to be outraged.
Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.