Certain books correspond to certain seasons. For as long as I’ve been a reader, I’ve felt this. In wintertime, I turn to poetry, prose fragments, pages defined by their blank spaces, pages understood by their visual proximity to snow. With summer comes heat, comes plot, comes the long and densely worded sentence, paragraphs that can stand up to the demands set forth by humidity—you need something that twists, something that can hold your attention even at your sweatiest and most indolent. Hence, the “summer novel,” a genre unto itself.
They differ from the beach read, those infamously loose and lax vacation fantasies. The summer novel is more of a spiritual undertaking, the prism through which one can look back at and understand any one particular summer. Like a perfume worn during a particular relationship or Billboard hit, a summer novel can hold the whole season in its sway. It doesn’t always have to be fiction—“summer novel” is something of a misnomer, I confess, as someone who’s promoting the term—but it should, I believe, adhere to a certain set of rules.
Firstly: the length. It should be long, and physically thick enough that you can easily balance it in one hand while eating a ripe piece of fruit with the other, the sweet juices of an apricot or a peach running with the sticky summer heat. As a book, it should be significant in some way, maybe even a so-called classic—there is a whiff of the schoolyard to my vision, an impulse borrowed, perhaps, from years of assigned summer reading. But whatever the book, and whatever the reason behind choosing it, the title should—by the end of the season—become something of a shorthand, a code, instantly invoking a series of memories tied to the high-temperature hours with which it’s passed. Years later I can recite, like any carefully crafted mnemonic, the titles that have become bookmarks for their season.
2014: The summer of Middlemarch, the summer of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, both read the summer I turned 24, the summer I spent laid off and the summer I didn’t get married, the summer I began to realize how easily one’s aspirations can begin to fray. 2015: The summer in which, halfway through, I read a magazine article concerning a new translation of The Tale of Genji and found myself so taken with the sheer sensuality of the word fragrance—as in, the fragrant prince, Genji’s grandson Niou—that I immediately ran to a bookstore and purchased a copy, all 1,179 pages of it. (Perhaps I could have finished it more easily, I think now, if I had not started reading it toward the end of July.) 2012: The summer I graduated college, the summer of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, read while standing, slinging postcards, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall. An older woman dropped her magnet and tapped one condescending finger against the cover—“That’s an unusual book,” she told me, “to read in a place like this. Are you a smart girl?”
Was I? Was I smart, or was I silly—all youthful rage, impotent with nowhere to go? That’s the paradox of memory, of fiction—all meanings merge, and time collapses. The summer novel gives you something concrete, something to hold on to. “That summer we bought big straw hats,” begins Margarita Liberaki’s Three Summers, the summer of 2019. “When we lay in the hayfield wearing them, the sky, the wildflowers, and the three of us all melted into one.…”
So much can happen in a summer. As a unit of time, it is discreet, tidy, three months of distilled and pure experience, in the narrative sense of the term. The association between summertime, reading, and leisure, observes Katy Waldman in The New Yorker, is a recent phenomenon, born of the 19th century, when “urbanization and industrialization gave summertime a new radiance—it offered a chance to escape the sweaty, overcrowded city and reconnect with nature.” Michelle Dean argues that “vacation reading is not a new concept” in a 2016 reevaluation of the term “beach read” in The Guardian. “But it was not until the wide popularization of paperbacks in America in the middle of the last century that you began to see the beach so closely entwined with a page-turning thriller.” My take on the summer novel is less familiar, a striver’s redefinition; what I am attempting to do, I now realize, is to take control, to dictate a mood, and to set myself up for some kind of lesson. But I should know better. By now, I should accept that life is a series of chances, of random encounters and what-ifs. The summer of 2004: The first time I read Anna Karenina, and I was too young; I didn’t fully understand. But one thing was clear: the image of Anna’s dark eyes, the witchcraft of her movements at the ball. And Vronsky watched—seductive and sad, such a terrible waste—Anna’s dark eyes, pooling.
How I spent my summer vacation: It’s a cliché, yes, the schoolchild’s essay, a ritual display. But I know what I did: I read. I read on the subway, and I read in the car. I read on vacation, and I read while commuting to and from the office; I read next to a pool at my family’s reunion, and I read in my apartment, restless from my lack of AC. I read in a foreign country, and I read while confined to one place due to the pandemic. I read as a student, and I read as an adult. Of course, I also closed the books, stood up, put on lipstick, and went out to dinner, a date, a drink, a concert, but I defined, and I continue to define, my summers through the pages turned, the fantasies with which I am swept. This is a manifesto of sorts; I am a reader, no matter the season. But in summer there is something magical; in summer there is something electric in the air, something we cannot define outside of the realm of description, metaphor, literature. A certain feeling. And when summer ends, let that summer’s book fulfill another one of my stringent summer book requirements: Upon closing, let me be immediately nostalgic for all those sweaty hours passed.
Rhian Sasseen is a writer whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Another Gaze, The Awl, The Baffler, Bitch, Kinfolk, Pacific Standard, among other publications.
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