By Matthew TenBruggencate
As the sun rises over the lake, you position your favourite chair on your cabin’s deck. A loon cries. Your spouse moves through the warrior pose series down on the dock, ignoring the water fight of your two point five children. A gentle breezes rustles the books stacked beside you (mimosa balanced on top). Now is your chance to dive into it: your summer reading list.
Was that last item the straw that broke the illusion’s back? It seems some people – despite the endorsements of public libraries, the helpful hints of Amazon and the curating powers of Oprah – don’t believe summer reading lists are real things.
“I’ve never known anyone who reads in summer but not the other three seasons,” says Méira Cook, recent winner of the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for her novel The House on Sugarbush Road. “It seems a perverse choice, doesn’t it?”
Perhaps I’m overstating the summer reading list rule. Like Cook, I don’t think anyone reads exclusively from June to September–or December to March, if you live below the equator. But I distinctly remember reading lists being sent home by my elementary school for summer holidays, then later making my own goals of books to tackle during my weeks out of class. Did no one else experience this?
“I have never heard anyone, ever, anywhere in life, refer to a summer reading list,” says Politics of Knives poet Jonathan Ball. “I suspect it is just a media creation.”
Not everyone is as dismissive. Some authors have heard of summer reading lists. Short story author Melissa Steele says they’re a “legitimate marketing tool for booksellers on the edge and about to be swallowed up by Amazon et al,” while poet John Toone says he doesn’t mind seasonal reading lists since “there are more harmful things that we soak in during July and August.”
Not ringing endorsements, but at least acknowledgements the things exist. Marjorie Poor, editor of Prairie Books NOW, is a bit kinder to the notion of a book list for the warm months.
“I think it could very well be a legitimate way for people to maximize some extra time they may have in the summer,” she says. “Back when I was a school teacher, I can see that way of thinking much more, and while I don’t know that I had a list, as such, I certainly had piles of books that I immediately dived into once school ended.”
Her note contains two sentiments most authors I spoke to agreed with. First, while they may not believe in a seasonally prescribing reading list, nearly every author has a stack of books on the go. Toone noted, “Lists are useful… so long as you don’t expect to complete them,” while poet and Manitoba Writers’ Guild co-founder Victor Enns writes, “Any reading list is a good list.”
The second notion Poor referenced was free time in the summer, an idea that seems even more dubious than a summer reading list. It’s been years since my summers were tainted with free time. Poor herself says, “Nowadays, summers are just as busy as any other time of the year for me.” Dadolescence author and Winnipeg Free Press columnist Bob Armstrong says his “summer holidays tend to be pretty active, so I often have less reading time on holiday than I do in normal life.”
OK, let’s put lists aside entirely. If the summer list is, at best, a device to prevent summer learning loss in school kids and, at worst, a media construction to justify another column, is there at least such a thing as a summer read–the kind of book that suits the warm weather, green grass and days at the friend of a friend’s borrowed cabin?
“In summer I find that I mostly re-read books I’ve loved,” says Cook. “It’s got nothing to do with nostalgia. I think it’s just my way of trying to control a world that’s too damn busy. All that green growing! All that squawk and spillage. At least there’s one place I don’t have to be introduced to anything (or anyone) new.”
Enns says he has “very fond memories of a teenage summer at my sister and brother-in-law’s apartment in Kitsilano, reading on the beach and at their cottage on the sunshine coast. My brother-in-law introduced me to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, including Nightmare in Pink and One Yellow Eye, both with lovely trashy covers with nearly naked ladies on the covers perfectly suited to draw the attention of a fourteen-year-old boy on vacation.”
Armstrong again stresses he doesn’t plan reading lists for a season, though he does choose books to prep for upcoming holiday trips. “Typically I’ll pick up a few books written by authors from the place I’m going or set in the place I’m going. Sometimes I’ll also read a history or two of the area. So before I went to Scotland I read Trainspotting, a Rebus mystery, a history of Scotland, and some Robert Louis Stevenson. Before my trip to Iceland, I read Njal’s Saga… I find this kind of literary preparation helps me appreciate the place I’m going.”
That’s an absolutely fantastic sentiment. If I went anywhere, I’d follow it. But as a recent college re-graduate (just finished a second round of post-secondary), I don’t have the coin to travel. Like Poor, I find my summers as busy as any other season. I have to rely on artists–filmmakers, actors, musicians and authors–to give me short, convenient and sometimes soul-shaking trips to another world. I hope that doesn’t seem cheap or petty in some way. I don’t think of it that way. On the contrary, in the midst of our richest season–when the weather has stopped trying to kill us and life is blooming–it seems right.
Kristian Enright, whose first book of poems, Sonar (Turnstone), just earned the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book, appears to agree.
“I have often wondered, while looking at the summer reader in their nonchalant pose of inaction, to the extent of their seeking defamiliarization – are they looking for a mild dose?” Enright says. “Or are they rethinking the world through the nuance of fiction or the distilled beauty of poetry (and the oddball essayist amid less popular genres)… I would regard it as a kind of breathing, an openness to the world and life and I by no means consider it a weak compromise, it is simply a different status: we might even see summer reading as an aesthetic experiment, to see what registers in consciousness.”
I’m changing my terms. I don’t have a summer reading list. I have a course of experiments and tests to conduct. If you’ll excuse me, I’m needed in the lab. Happy summer.
Looking for some guidance in your literary tests and forays? Whatever their thoughts on summer reading lists, here are what some Winnipeg authors are planning to tackle over the next few months.
Life by Keith Richards, The Politics of Knives by Jonathan Ball, Where Calling Birds Gather by John Weier, Whitetail Intrigue by John Ozoga, plus lit magazines, the odd and often old National Geographic, and whatever is in the outhouse…
The next novel on my list is The House on Sugarbush Road by Méira Cook.
I just started reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and am loving it, but this winter I took up studying French again, so I have been trying to read what I can in French. I have to choose carefully as most books are too difficult for me, but I recently read Les Lettres Chinois by Ying Chen–a slim, readable and beautiful book about two amorous young people from Shanghai and what happens to them and their love when one of them emigrates to Montreal. I am planning to read more of Ying Chen this summer and also some Gabrielle Roy stories, also en français. I would also like to read anything by Charles Dickens I haven’t yet read.
One of my bookshelves is devoted to my “next-reads,” which include Timely Irreverence by Jay MillAr, Long Division by Alan Michael Parker, Omens in the Year of the Ox by Steven Price, Wordpharmacy by Morten Søndergaard, The Invisible Library by Paul Wilson, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid, Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz, Husk by Corey Redekop, Tenth of December by George Saunders…