The term ‘summer reading’ provokes a wry smile. In the south of England, it refers to books. In Scotland, it refers to clothes. Living in Glasgow as I do, ‘summer reading’ is reading whilst dressed as a normal person, that is, without thermal vests, three jerseys, snood, mittens and UGG boots. Summer reading is undertaken sitting still instead of hopping up and down counting the minutes until the heating goes on. Teeth don’t chatter during summer reading. I like the silence.
I also like the fact, sad to some, that because my husband and I can’t travel together – anxious early-birds and sane just-in-timers are a toxic travelling cocktail – our summer reading isn’t subject to the Kindle versus excess baggage debate. If we go away at all, we drive to my sister’s house in Yorkshire, with the dog and a box of books heavy as the box of wine, some worthy, some less worthy (books, not wine). When we get to Yorkshire, we unpack our books, then we ignore them.
My sister’s house is stuffed with books we haven’t read. It’s in her house that I finally discovered Barbara Pym’s neat elegance, Rebecca West’s perfect short story collection and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Rifling through the shelves like a happy burglar, I rediscovered a William Maxwell I recommended to her years ago. I reread it from start to finish out in the sun, stopping only to pick raspberries for supper and wander up the moor with our Jack Russell terrier. Summer reading, apparently, isn’t a patch on summer sniffing.
And dogs, lucky blighters, are not subject to sniffing lists, whereas it takes a very single-minded reader to ignore the parade of ‘essential’ summer reading pushed by publishers towards media platforms, and by media platforms towards us. But the roll call does serve a purpose. For publishers, quite apart from the timings of prize shortlists, lists are convenient: new writers in the new year; hopeful yet not so new writers in the spring; summer lists, with their sunny promise, designed to entice readers who might not otherwise bother with books at all. In the main, recommended summer reading is lighter than autumn – Sophie Kinsella or Jeffrey Deaver as against, say, Martin Amis or Thomas Pynchon – although those who took Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing as a Guardian recommended 2014 beach-read might have been in for a surprise.
Or perhaps not. Readers seldom conform to type, and the appeal of the summer list is more about grasping a lifeboat in a swollen sea than running with the herd. Last year, UK publishers alone issued 20 new titles every hour. To adapt an old phrase, this is publishing by fire hydrant. Unsurprising, then, that whether for spring novelty, summer entertainment, autumnal ruminations or Christmas presents, lists remain popular.
But do readers care about seasonal lists? Not a jot, and even for publishers, their days may be numbered. When Publishers Weekly asked ‘Is seasonal publishing dead?’, the answer appeared to be ‘nearly’. As Ruth Liebmann of Random House pointed out, these days ‘the reorder is often more important than the initial order’, and the practical reason for demarcated seasons – when a barge filled with books could actually deliver – has vanished. With books printed on demand or going straight to digital, we almost laugh at what a physically cumbersome process publication used to be. Remove physical restrictions and all traditional lines begin to blur.
And not just in publishing. With new technologies, cheap labour and easy transport slashing the journey from design board to shopfloor, ‘season-led’ fashion is also old hat. As a half-hearted protest, fashion now has pre-seasons with skinnier and skinnier time-slots: pre-spring is roughly the size of a size 0 model, pre-autumn the length of a dress zip. Central heating and air conditioning render seasonal weather irrelevant. Catwalks are now for brand exposure, whilst retailers like Zara focus on quick turnover and ever-changing choice. When customer choice is king, whether in fashion or in books, seasons give way, and though we lose the year’s gently reassuring seasonal rhythm, we gain the freedom to make seasons of our own.
Or most of us do. Pity the Tory MPs who, in 2008, were issued by party chiefs with a summer reading list running to 38 books including Bill Emmott’s weighty Rivals: how the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade. Skimming down it, I thought I spotted Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Sharp, witty, poignant, an excellent choice for beach or cafe! It was actually Decline to Fall: the making of British macro-economic policy and the 1976 IMF crisis. Have mercy, give MPs a Trollope.
As for me, always late to the ‘must read’ list, Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Gordon Brown’s My Scotland, Our Britain will help keep the wine bottles steady. I’ll also muster half a dozen novels from the various stacks of various vintages, and possibly rescue one or two books from the loo — I think that’s where Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is hiding. As you see, packing will be haphazard.
My real summer indulgence is that if I don’t like a book, I chuck it over. Delight, not duty should be the watchword. Banish plodding through and offering the suffering up ‘for the holy souls’ — the legacy of a convent education. If I’m not hooked by page ten, I agree momentarily with the dog and substitute reading for sniffing, which is a form of reading, after all. In Yorkshire, with the tang of sheep and moorland mist, I’m momentarily Catherine Earnshaw, except I’m not looking for Heathcliff. Instead, I’m recalling summers past, in memory always sunnier than summers present, when early worship of Muriel Wace’s Moorland Mousie gave way to Violet Needham’s The Black Riders, and finally to the memorable summer when not even the lure of ice-cream could separate me from John Fowles’s The Magus.
And I wonder: at what moment in life does liberating ‘reading in the summer’ become prescriptive ‘summer reading’? It may be when you spot your first summer reading list. Embrace the subversive: buy the ‘essentials’, then go stay with a sister and read her books instead.