The highest compliment we’re supposed to give to a book is to say we that we can’t put it down. But this week, in sharing my annual summer reading list, I’d like to say a few words about books that charm us because they can be put down. The kind of book I’m trying to describe doesn’t grab us by the throat, like a thriller or mystery, but simply shakes our hand — a companionable friend, not a needy performer.
Such a book is “More Scenes from the Rural Life,” Verlyn Klinkenborg’s second collection of essays from his small farm in upstate New York. These pieces first appeared in The New York Times, where Klinkenborg worked until 2013.
Klinkenborg’s book has followed me around town for months, to barbershops and dentist offices, the doctor and the driver’s license bureau. Grubby with use, its lovely ivory cover grew dark with grime, and then, one day, the book disappeared altogether. I suspect that it slipped out of my hatchback as I was making room for a lawnmower fetched from the shop. A replacement copy arrived a few days ago, and it’s already beginning to show the scars of travel from one errand to the next.
I think that Klinkenborg would like the way that my copies of his book have been out in the workaday world, up close to the daily grind of getting things done. His essays read like long prose poems to the particular pleasures of a life lived in doing stuff — mending fences, feeding horses, planting white spruces in a place much cooler than the one where I live.
Reading about all of this work is a nice substitute, of course, for working itself. I read in summer to stay still, placing my brain in a virtual hammock even when a real one isn’t close by.
What I want is a sense of enclosure, of being enveloped in a world, or a way of seeing, that’s different from my own.
It’s why I’ve also been reading “Our Souls at Night,” the late Kent Haruf’s small, quietly observed novel about an elderly widow and widower who enter into an unconventional remedy for loneliness. The book itself is an answer to loneliness, since reading it creates a spirit of being with old friends.
I’m reading “Self-Consciousness,” John Updike’s childhood memoir, because his musings shimmer so radiantly that we can often skim them and see our own reflection winking back at us.
I’ve been dipping into Laurie Lee’s “A Moment of War,” his account of service in the Spanish Civil War, because he writes the kind of prose that continues to hum after you leave it, like a faint ringing in the ears.
I am also reading — no, rereading — “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough’s new book about the world’s most famous aviation duo. We learn that the Wrights were also big readers, finding in books the courage to fly. Which is why, I guess, anyone chooses to read.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.