I’ve come to learn that there is something in the nature of summer itself — something contained in the shape and sensibility of those long, inert months — that makes people want to read. As a 12-year-old, I learned to absorb large doses of ideas and images, and I never lost that ability. But I also never lost my sense of summer as the ideal season for reading. Although summer no longer means vacation time to me, at the beginning of June I still begin to fantasize about books.
Summer reading has a leisurely reputation, way up there with other genteel activities such as croquet and badminton and wildflower-gathering. The act of reading has historically been considered a privilege, and summer reading is privilege taken to an extreme. Just the image of a reader in summer brings to mind something sensual and luxurious. We picture the reader outdoors only, arranged in some bucolic setting: forest or beach or yard. One stock image is that of a woman stretched out on a hammock surrounded by greenery, clutching a worn copy of "Middlemarch."
No matter how we picture the summer reader, he or she is always seen reclining. This brings to mind the inevitable comparison of summer reading with bedtime reading. Throughout the summer, as before bed, it’s often difficult to stay fully conscious. The body is in a state of repose, and the reader has to choose between the passive pleasure of sleep or the active pleasure of reading. At bedtime, reading may hold its own for a while, but sleep invariably wins.
In the summer, however, it’s possible to do little else but read; it’s possible to use a beautiful landscape merely as a backdrop. One’s body becomes so comfortable that it doesn’t need much attention. Responsibilities seem remote, and for once permission has been given to simply lie there.
For years, no matter where I spent the summer, I always gave myself this permission. If I went away, I took a suitcase of books with me, or else made sure I had access to someone else’s books. One summer, I stayed in a rented beach house and spent many weeks reading through the owner’s slightly damp collection. Another summer, a college friend and I went to Europe, and whichever country we were in, we always tried to dig up English-language books.
We ferreted around in the backs of general stores in small towns in Italy and Greece, sometimes triumphantly coming up with the most surprising tides: Dorothy Sayers’s "Gaudy Night" — excavated from a bin in Corinth! John Cheever’s "Wapshot Chronicles" — found on a bottom shelf in Brindisi! We read day and night on trains all over Europe. By the time the summer was over, we had polished off a wide variety of titles. I imagined I could continue at this clip forever, barreling each summer through novels and biographies and essays. It did not occur to me that at some point things might change.
During the summer after college graduation, I was living temporarily in my parents’ house. As always, I had geared myself up for another summer packed with books; it was all I’d ever known, the only way I’d ever spent a summer. But this summer was already different in that the books themselves had changed. The items I now wanted to read, and the ones that had been recommended by friends, were richer, longer, harder than ever before.
My summer reading list looked like the syllabus of a “Great Books from the Beginning of Civilization Until This Very Minute” course at an experimental college: Shakespeare (including the histories); and then a smattering of Nietzsche and Melanie Klein; "The Confessions of Saint Augustine"; "History" by Elsa Morante; "Villette" by Charlotte Bronte; and finally, Robert Musil’s classic, "The Man Without Qualities," which a friend had thrust into my hands with an urgency that startled me.
I was determined to plow single-mindedly through all of these works; I would steep myself in them, and at the end of the summer I would feel the thrill of accomplishment. This was a solitary venture; there was no one around with whom to compare lists or trade volumes on trains. The desire to read had to come from elsewhere: from the siren call of summer itself.
And summer did call. Each afternoon I went out into the yard and planted myself on a chaise longue, Saint Augustine’s Confessions open in my lap. This book was a perfect choice — shining, stirring prose from another time and place. Because summer days are long, I was never quite sure of what time it was. I would look up from Saint Augustine, completely disoriented, thinking: One o’clock? Three o’clock? Five? I felt as though I could read forever and the sun would never set and no authority figure would ever order me to “put that book away.”
Excerpted from "Summer," a collection of essays from Shebooks, the new publisher of short e-books by women. Meg Wolitzer is a Pushcart award-winning author best known for her novels, "The Interestings," "The Uncoupling," "The Ten-Year Nap," "The Position," and "The Wife."