With the passage of Memorial Day, we’ve begun another summer reading season, our national tradition of embracing books just for fun. Observing that ritual might seem a little off-key this year, coming at the end of a spring in which lots of Americans homebound by the pandemic indulged extra reading to pass the time. As we emerge, ever so slowly, into some new normal, haven’t we read quite enough?
Maybe so. But with so many travel plans still up in the air, the next few months are shaping up to be a season of staycations for millions. Our escapes this summer might have to be mostly of the mental kind — the sorts of journeys afforded by a book, a backyard corner, and something served over ice.
Such moments can linger as memorably as a trip to the mountains or the beach. Many years ago, circumstances conspired to keep our household home all summer. I passed a few afternoons in a patio hammock reading James Thurber, the humorist best known for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Decades later, I remember those hours more fondly than some of our travels far from here.
In a year destined to be defined by time spent at home, I’ve started my summer reading season with “Lives of Houses,” a collection of essays exploring the connections between famous people and where they dwell. The chapter on Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s house, seems especially timely right now as lots of contagion-stressed Americans evoke Churchill’s example of resolve. Churchill had to churn out a lot of books and articles, we learn, to help maintain Chartwell, which was a money pit. Of course, what house isn’t?
During enforced time at home this year, many of us have taken more notice of backyard birds. That whetted my interest in “American Birds: A Literary Companion,” another title on my summer reading list. It’s an anthology of some of the best writing about birds from antiquity to our own day, including some words from John James Audubon, one of Louisiana’s most famous former residents, on using his hat to capture a woodpecker. What he should have said, and what I will add, is that you shouldn’t try that at home.
Short stories seem a nice answer to summer’s short attention spans. Let me nominate “Where the Light Falls,” a collection of stories from Nancy Hale, including “The Earliest Dreams,” which perfectly describes how children eavesdrop on grown-ups — something much in fashion in the full households of this year’s pandemic.
I’ve also been reading “Mudlark,” Laura Maiklem’s smartly observed book about the hobbyists who enjoy seeing what treasures London’s Thames River leaves behind at low tide.
That’s why we all read, I guess — for the hope of the sharp, bright things we’ll find, the small gifts that chance carries our way. In this, as in so much else these days, it helps to believe in luck.