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Tara O'Donnell, an LSU student working on her doctorate in French Literature, has a good read on a quiet pier, in this case one overlooking University Lake at BREC's Milford Wampold Memorial Park, Sunday morning, May 16, 2021. Despite specializing in French authors, she was reading 'Seven Story Mountain,' the critically-acclaimed autobiography by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion. 'I don't particularly like being indoors,' she said, 'I like being outdoors in nature, and it helps me concentrate.'

Some weeks ago, when The Wall Street Journal asked a few experts for advice on making a good outdoor reading nook, New Orleans designer Penny Francis was in the mix.

When Francis recently redid a backyard space near the edge of the French Quarter, a reading nook was part of the plan. “We built a day bed that we put lots of plush pillows on and recycled vintage shutters to make a backdrop. … It was an incredibly cozy space,” she told the newspaper.

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I welcomed the thought that a nationwide audience would read about Francis and think of Louisiana weather beyond its hurricanes. As summer leaves and the storm season ebbs, autumn here can mean nicer things — including, as Francis reminded us, the chance to read outside.

Although summer beach reading gets lots of attention, reading outdoors in autumn is even better. The temps are brisker, the light more forgiving and no one has to worry about getting sand in the pages.

Unlike Francis, I don’t have a fixed reading nook in my backyard. We lost a big tree last year, meaning lots more sunlight around the patio. When I read outside these days, I move as the sun does, shifting my lawn chair to grab whatever shade I can find in the shadow of our Drake elm or a wide stand of bamboo. Like the hands of a clock, I migrate through the afternoon, a traveler in time as well as space. The books I carry take me places, too.

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In summer, I tend to read small books that are easy to carry on vacation. In fall, a season that usually finds me at home, I try to tackle bigger books.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying “The Transcendentalists and Their World,” a new doorstopper-size volume from Robert A. Gross about the New England community that made Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau into great writers. Gross has been working on his book, which is more than 800 pages, for decades. Like Robert Caro, who’s been toiling away at a multivolume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson for much of his life, Gross builds paragraphs as patiently as a mason, brick by brick. There’s an abiding moderation in the way Gross tells his story, and it’s a relief, in such a rhetorically heated season, to spend time with a voice like that, calmed by a writer who doesn’t get carried away by what he has to say.

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Not everyone likes outdoor reading. Charles Lamb, an old English writer who nursed his dislikes as fervently as his enthusiasms, found reading outside too distracting.

It can be, I suppose. But I like sitting in a cool November lawn with a book on my lap, the page illuminated by the life of the world. It reminds me that I, too, am part of a story, framed by another year drawing to a close.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.