Summer Reading Assignments for Grown-Ups

It is finally summer on both technicality and weather report. The solstice, with its long dreamy evening, has come and gone, and the rain has gone, too, from my northwestern neck of the woods. Sunlight sticks around so late in the day that every night I marvel at the still-blue sky after 9 pm.

It’s time to read outdoors without cold fingers, to shed coats and cardigans while reading on the bar patio, and to turn my mind to a long-beloved topic: summer reading.

This is a concept we will have to define in order to talk about.

I don’t mean summer reading in the beach reads and blockbusters sense. I mean it more like it was meant in elementary school: reading you do over the summer that maybe—sort of?—counts towards school. When I was a kid, it was like being told to do something I wanted to do anyway. Read more books? Cool! It was a pleasant non-challenge, like the time we were supposed to collect gold stars inside a construction paper folder for every fairy tale we read. I would have used up every gold star in the school if they’d let me.

What I want from summer reading now is a little different. Summer can be nebulous, more concept than action, when your year keeps the same shape season after season. Summer is for longer walks at dusk, drinks on the balcony, warm backyards and impossible sunsets and standing just close enough to a waterfall to get lightly drenched for the hike back to the car. But it can also be good intentions lost to a haze of sweating iced coffee cups and remembering to close the windows once it’s about 65 out there, or feeling like you should take advantage of things—frosé! New ice cream flavors! Outdoor events and rooftop dinners!—when you don’t always have the energy or the wherewithal to do more than gaze longingly outdoors.

What I want from summer reading is a sense of purpose. A theme or intent, a project, a little reading quest. Something on which to focus, to plan out like a trip. 

Do you have to have a summer reading plan? You certainly do not. Read at random; read blockbusters; read the genres you don’t read during the rest of the year, the ones that feel at odds with whatever your conception of spring and winter and fall reading are. Read magazines and articles and all those interesting tabs you keep meaning to close (I have so many open tabs, and even more articles saved in Instapaper). Or join me in giving yourself homework. 

I love theme reading. I loved books about New York City when I didn’t live there and books about my home state when I did; I love books about places I want to go and books about places I’ll never go; I adore reading lists that string together books originally written in different languages or published in different countries. You can, if you so desire, make a project out of anything.

My project for this particular summer is to read the kind of thing I want to write. 

This is not, I hasten to add, about to become a column about writing. But this is my example project, my framework for how making a summer reading list might work. Maybe you want to read books by SFF authors in translation, or every book that’s won a Hugo for Best Novel, or overlooked women writers of the ‘80s. You pick your project. Only you can figure out what you want from it.

That’s the first step: What do you want to read? Are you after a specific sort of author? A thematic trend? Retellings, epic fantasies, intimate science fiction, climate crisis books, anything set on a planet far, far away? Found families or loners? International authors or writers from your own country or state or city? I like to sketch out my parameters in a list. What I want right now is:

  • Stories that use or relate to fairytales and/or myths
  • Stories about (young) women getting their shit together
  • Books where a journey of self-discovery is literally a journey
  • Stories set in small communities
  • Books with subtle but omnipresent magic
  • Characters who are facing up to things they have been avoiding feeling
  • “Quiet” books that are not super plot-driven
  • Winter vibes, snow, forests, the solstice

There are people who don’t like to read anything like what they’re writing, but I’m at the point now where I want to swim in a similar sea—if one full of strange currents and things that are bigger and better than me: “The bigger you make your art life,” Matt Bell writes in Refuse to Be Done, “the more possibilities your imagination will generate.” In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin says, “A writer who wants to write good stuff needs to read great stuff. If you don’t read widely, or read only writers in fashion at the moment, you’ll have a limited idea of what can be done with the English language.”

Because I have a possibly overgrown to-be-read shelf, my summer reading research starts there; I’ve bought books for this exact purpose in the last few years and just … not read them. Yet. Now is the time. Though I may not want to admit just how many of these books I’ve been collecting. Here are a few that seem like they’ll fit the bill:

This list began with more books on it than it has now, because as I lined them up, I started to see where they did and didn’t make sense; I took off a few that were more literary than I wanted, to adjust the balance, and started to see where the gaps were. Needs more forests. Needs more magic. Needs more Elizabeth Hand, which is where I started to make a list of books I don’t have, but want to read as part of this process:

It is, to be clear, incredibly hard to search for books based on vibes. It’s too personal, too fraught, to be a simple task. There are lists of everything on the internet, but it would be a lot to ask for there to be a list of books that fit a specific but still nebulous idea you can hold in your mind but can’t quite put your finger on. If you’re making a summer reading list with a more concrete theme, you’re likely to have an easier time of it.

Either way, it can help to make a list of books you already know are the kind of thing you’re looking for. See what else they have in common, and if there are things you hadn’t considered. For me, right now, these books are Boy Snow Bird, Wicked, The Giant Dark, and everything by Angela Carter and Kelly Link—which tells me I need more myths, more transformation, more strange women, and maybe more unexpected love stories, even (especially?) if they don’t have happy endings. 

If you want to get very specific, you can get detailed with your summer reading homework: How much do you want to read each week? Each day? Do you want to plan the order of your reading, giving yourself a schedule? Do you have a goal number of books? Do you get a reward if you meet it? I’m keeping it simple: the goal is to read an hour a day. Read an hour, write an hour, walk an hour. And reward myself with ice cream whenever I feel like it.

I have my work cut out for me. What do you want to read this summer? What’s calling to you as the weather turns warm?

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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