On June of my 13th year, right after school let out, I began reading Gone with the Wind—this because my Southern-born grandmother had taken me to see the movie. Every morning I put on my shorts and T-shirt, grabbed a piece of toast and my paperback, and headed to the front yard, where I unfolded my beat-up navy blue canvas beach chair. Hours went by, a rare cloud appearing in the sky, as I immersed myself in the love story of Scarlett and Rhett set against the tragedy of the Civil War. I heard birds in present time on top of the cannon fire, my prepubescent heart racing at the thought of romance to come, my very own Clark Gable. No proffered entertainment could lure me away—not a Ping-Pong game with my sister or a bike ride to get ice cream. I was hooked. Gone. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in that book on that lawn. Why I chose this particular location over our perfectly nice backyard, I am not sure. Maybe the spot felt more private—no dogs, no family members. Just me, blissfully marooned at Tara.
The feeling of being swallowed up by a story was already familiar to me. I was a reader, word-smitten from an early age. But the memory of being outside and consuming that sweeping melodrama, the whole sensory package, stands out. It just so happens I pass the house where we lived whenever I take my dogs for a walk. I see myself sitting there, an enthralled teenager—no sunscreen, no straw hat (this was before we knew about the dangers of UV rays)—turning the pages as slowly as possible because I couldn’t bear the idea of being tossed back into the real world when I finally finished.
I tended to be a fast reader, galloping through books, inhaling them. But with GWTW, I learned patience. I slowed down so I could truly experience those plantations and register the carnage. The reduced pace was part of the season. I didn’t have to be somewhere, doing something obligatory. There were no papers due, no science projects to undertake, and my mother, thank goodness, wasn’t a believer in summer school. Languor was in the air, along with the occasional gnat or fly. I had been assigned books to read before school resumed in September, but they weren’t sprawling historical epics. They were strong and meaty, like The Red Badge of Courage and Animal Farm—gripping, I admit, in their own evocative way but not enveloping, not tales to swoon over. I generally saved those required texts for late August, as I was getting back into the academic harness.
Summertime reading was special, a pleasure apart. I learned that lesson, and it has stayed with me. The weather plays a key role. We can have warm days in the dead of winter—there certainly was an abundance this year—when we can read outside. I know; I did it. But the summer sun is more seductive, and the days are longer. You can drift from house to chaise in play clothes or in your nightgown (yes, I have done this, too). When it’s really hot, there is the added happiness of seeking a shady nook to crawl into, the leafy trees forming a green canopy overhead. Best of all is the tempo change, how we grant permission to body and soul to relax, to surrender to a book in ways impossible at other times. Even if we are not literally on vacation, by a picturesque lake or ocean—many continue to work steadily through this period, with only a week or two away from the office—there is still a sense of exhalation, of ease that informs how we read and the selections we make.
I wander into Diesel, my local bookstore in the Brentwood Country Mart, to find out what people are reading these days. The staff tells me women ask for something “light,” a beach read (a code name for that dismissive label “chick lit”), a novel by Jennifer Weiner, for example, or the best-seller with the provocative, cheesy title The Husband’s Secret. These are not traditional bodice rippers but rather bourgeois unbuttoners: adultery, longing, broken and mended hearts. Some of them are reasonably well written—perhaps well observed is the more accurate way to describe them. I understand why people like this genre, though it doesn’t work for me. The sentences don’t usually sing, and the plots can feel a bit formulaic. If I am after a love story, I will take it subtler, sadder: anything by Alice McDermott or Alice Munro. I tend not to attempt major nonfiction during the summer months—no instructive or argumentative theses on the decline of America or the enduring legacy of colonialism in Africa. Even on an e-reader, such fare seems too “heavy” to tote around. I do have pals who got ambitious and formed a group to conquer Ulysses this summer. To them I say bravo. I was tempted for a moment to insinuate myself into their pack, but on reflection decided I did not have the synaptic fortitude to tackle James Joyce’s dazzling verbiage.
For men the seasonal reads, my Diesel informants say, are mysteries. They ask for Michael Connelly or the latest Harlan Coben. Also popular are slightly more obscure authors such as Jamal Mahjoub, whose Makana series (under the pen name Parker Bilal) features a detective in Cairo. He was brought to my attention by my great friend Derek Shearer, a professor at Occidental College. He also led me to a series by Martin Walker about a police chief named Bruno, who presides over a small town in the south of France. With these books you get a thriller-cum-travelogue, which allows you to journey without the hassle. Though I don’t know a single man who has read Jennifer Weiner, whose latest will be published on June 17 in time for the summer crowd, some of my women friends are mystery hounds and will happily take to the hammock with Bruno. Of course with him you get French food and wine, lovely accompaniments to murder.
One of the nonfiction books prominently displayed at Diesel—and the one I am recommending to everybody—is My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. I suppose this qualifies as another destination read. But it is so much more, a heartbreaking look at that country, its founding and moral complexities. Idling away an afternoon, an Arnold Palmer nearby, you can savor the insights and the lyrical but unfussy sentences. Because it reads like a novel, it makes my seasonal cut.
Sometimes when I am at loose ends, I carry a stack of cookbooks into the yard, daydreaming about the elegant meals I might serve for an upcoming brunch or supper. I keep Post-it notes handy and smack them all over the pages: a salade niçoise here, a lemon soufflé there—or my new discovery, sliced tomatoes with grated Gruyère and shallots from Home Cooking with Jean-Georges. Or I will gaze at my bookshelves and choose an old favorite with which to spend the afternoon: a Roth or a Cather or a Brontë. Sometimes this scanning of my library can last up to an hour as I take a visual walk among the titles. Not so long ago I came upon a book I had admired, Consider This, Señora by Harriet Doerr, a quiet tale of four expatriates in a small Mexican village. It was written when the author was 83. Inside I found a nice inscription to my husband and me that I’d forgotten about. I interviewed Doerr once in Pasadena, where she lived, and had taken the book to be signed. I gave hours to it, reading carefully from beginning to end, a luxury I allow myself only in summer, and when it started to get cooler, I fetched a blanket and a tumbler of cold white wine. An inveterate Kindle user, I was reminded of the pleasure of paper, the feel of it, the look of the print.
A book I have yet to pick up again is Gone with the Wind. I wonder whether, if I read it now, it would seem overwrought, not to my all-too-grown-up taste. I have never wanted to risk knowing, though my tattered paperback copy is there on the shelf. It remains a talisman of that long-ago experience, the one, I realize, I am always trying to duplicate.