Massimo Listri/Taschen

June 10, 2021

Curating a Summer Reading List

Print More

I am, somehow, always surprised when summer arrives. It’s like being on a noisy train with your friends and peers for four months, making a mad dash to various places, trying to memorize routes and destinations, watching the world pass at a hundred miles an hour — and then suddenly being dropped off in the sunshine of some quiet field somewhere, blinking as the train sails into the distance without you. That is, at least, how it feels for me this year. My travel plans for summer fieldwork were foiled by COVID yet again, so I must drift back home and find a familiar job. 

When not working, there is one way I have always spent my summers, and that is digging out a few titles from my neglected shelf of unread books. I find the company of books a great comfort and carry around far more than I could ever hope to read. I’ve long abandoned the practice of giving myself a hard time for not reading them all, and suggest my fellow procrastinators do as well — we are besieged with so much information everyday, it’s a wonder our brains don’t entirely pack up shop and go on strike. 

If you, like me, are looking forward to some reading this summer, let’s embark on this ill-fated journey together. Will we achieve our reading goals? Almost certainly not. Will we still enjoy the act of resistance that is leisure in a society that values only productivity? We must — or perish. 

Here’s how I’ll be choosing a summer reading list: 

  1. One book must be an old friend. There is nothing so comforting as being hugged by a friend or loved one we haven’t seen in a long time, an experience that I am sure we are all looking forward to in a world slowly remembering itself in the devastating wake of COVID. I would argue that rereading an old favorite book comes halfway close to that feeling. When we reread books, we remember not just moments and atmospheres of literary immersion, but where we were when we first read them  — even the feeling of sitting with them on some afternoon, on a half-forgotten childhood vacation from which a few grains of sand remain trapped in between pages, or in some café that no longer exists, but has left that smoky smell of old coffee. That’s the time machine quality of books. My reread of choice this summer is Life of Pi I loved it for many years, and I want to know if it still holds up in my list of favorites. 
  2. One book must heighten awareness: of yourself, of injustices, curiosities or histories of your present society, of something or someone you have wanted to know more about. I would argue that almost every good book has something to do with our increasing awareness, but it is the intention of seeking that matters for this particular selection. In one of my classes this semester, we read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which was at once devastating, beautiful and convicting. I plan to read Sula, continuing along the chronological path of Morrison’s spectacular literary career. 
  3. One book must be recommended or given to you. I am always delighted when people suggest or give me books. Maybe it’s narcissistic, or maybe it’s just human, but I am always surprised and pleased to know that I exist for other people in a way so concrete that they trust me with a book they enjoyed (and thus a part of themselves). Sometimes I share that enjoyment, and sometimes I don’t — more importantly, I can talk about it with them after, over Facetime or a cup of coffee. I’ll be reading Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation: Stories, both by Ted Chiang and both given to me by my sister. 
  4. One book must be spontaneous. You see it in a bookstore or library and the title on the spine, the blurb on the back or the color of the cover snags your attention. I find these are the high risk, high reward sort of books: sometimes shallow, sometimes a new favorite. Of course, I can’t predict what book that will be for me this summer (although I admittedly don’t need anymore), but I’ll know it when I see it. 

Reading’s great competitor, scrolling on my phone, is the sort of thing I regret after an hour or so. It is another habit I have tried to break but must have compassion for regardless: we are under immense strain from months of stress, and we understandably fear disconnection from friends and current events. However, it is a privilege to have any sort of free time, and lest I lose all of it to scrolling, I am determined to lose it in part to books. Their atmospheric residues, their unique voices, speak of other places and times. They are warmly familiar, startling, urgent. Ultimately they offer not so much of an escape as a reminder of the present, and all of its possibilities. 

Charlee Mandy is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at crm299@cornell.edu.