While returning some overdue books the other day, I was happy to see that the gelato cart had returned for the summer to its usual place by the front door of the local library. After paying my fine, I still had enough cash to buy a bowl of strawberry gelato for the ride home.
Our terrier welcomed me back, weaving between my legs as he angled for his own share of dessert. In the ruckus, some of it spilled on his back, and he wore a bright red stain for several days, a scarlet letter shaming him as a slave to gluttony.
In Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” a long novel that’s widely admired but seldom read, the narrator bites into a madeleine, a light French pastry cake, and is mentally transported to a much earlier time in his life. It reminds him of eating the same treat when he was younger, so with a simple indulgence, the years magically collapse.
I had a madeleine moment myself as the gelato landed on my tongue. It made me think of my first public library, where children who attended the summer reading program were rewarded with paper cups of ice cream. Each child got a flat little wooden spoon shaped like a boat paddle to scoop the stuff. The taste of wood and vanilla made a mark on my memory that the passage of decades has failed to erase.
Sharing ice cream and books gave me an enduring sense of reading as something to be enjoyed away from school, a treat in itself.
I won’t be reading Proust this summer, having learned the limits, I hope, of what any vacation season can reasonably hold. A couple of years ago, The New York Times asked Bill Bryson, the author of “A Walk in the Woods” and other funny memoirs, to name the last book he’d put down without finishing. “Nearly every summer when we go away on vacation,” Bryson told The Times, “I pack an old copy of ‘Anna Karenina,’ and every year I manage to move the bookmark about 20 pages along. … At the rate I am going, I estimate that I will need approximately 74 more vacations to finish.”
Bryson’s confession points to the wisdom of reading smaller books in the summer.
With that in mind, I’ve started the season with “The Pocket R.L.S.,” a tiny volume that samples the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, the 19th century Scotsman behind “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and some witty essays and travel books. The first owner of my copy, I see from the inscription, got it in 1939 as the Great Depression lingered and war clouds loomed.
Even in dark, strange times — or especially in those times — people have a need for fun books. All the more reason, I guess, to savor summer reading, and a little gelato, too.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.