The summer read. The beach book. The pina colada stained paperback. The sand-encrusted romance. What is it about sitting outside in the warmth of the summer sun that makes cracking open a book, like,7 times better than regular reading? Something involving UV rays and endorphins, probably. When you’re in school, the summer means freedom from academic reading and more free time in general. You have time to get through that “to-read list” you’ve had sitting around, maybe start to cut through that pile of books on your nightstand. If you’re an adult, years of Pavlovian conditioning to associate summer with freedom may still reign over realty. Summer implies being arbiter of your temporal destiny, free to spend your time as you wish. Summer is time to get some good reading done.
Summer reads often get delegated to bestsellers, light things that don’t really offer much but a little fun without much weight, the literary equivalent of a lollipop – delicious and fun, but ultimately unmemorable, leaving you with nothing but a saliva-covered stick to throw out. It was sweet, maybe a little green-appley and/or blue raspberryey, but you don’t come away with anything worthwhile.
I’d like to offer you the literary pomegranate. A little more difficult to crack open and eat, but with a glut of delicious, vitamin-rich morsels to enjoy within. Rather than a few minutes of uninspired sucking, a pomegranate presents a period of careful picking at delicious juice-filled seeds. Challenging and healthy, but also delicious, refreshing and kind of an adventure. Also a little hard to come by. The literary pomegranate is the “smart” summer beach read. Sure, pomegranates are a winter thing, but they’re still refreshing, right?
My definition of a beach read is something that you can read for a few minutes, put down, and pick up again where you left off without getting confused. A beach read should be fun, and possibly uplifting. My definition of a “brain book” is a book that asks good questions and makes you think differently than you did before, hopefully assisting you in your quest to understand the world around you. It’ll be tough to be as fun as the Topless Book Club, but I’ll try.
1. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Skippy Dies is about exactly what the title says its about. But it’s also about belief, wonderment, childhood, growing up and friendship. And Irish politics. And drugs, and love. And donuts, “For in some ways, is our modern way of life not comparable to one of these doughnuts? ‘Junk food’ that satisfies only temporarily, that offers a ‘quick fix’, but has, at the centre of it, a hole?” And science! There’s science in there. The weird quantum stuff you pretend to know about. And magic and Celtic folklore. And boarding school. Skippy Dies will teach you about a lot of things, not all of them true, and many of them not important, but Paul Murray brings them all together for a really fun read that’ll add some wrinkles to the ol’ grey matter.
2. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Way more fun than it sounds. If you’re a writer, you’ll enjoy it for its unique method of storytelling – it is written from the first person plural perspective, so the narrator is an amorphous ‘we’, presumed to be “the boys in the neighborhood.” It’s pretty cool and awesome in that unconventional way. You’re getting the story of a tragic (but beautiful) suburban family from the perspective of the collective boydom of the nearby ‘hood. Hey, maybe it’s not uplifting, but you won’t be able to stop reading once you start, you’ll have “just one more chapter syndrome.” Also, the author looks like an evil version of Louis CK, which is pretty cool.
3. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
First, a disclaimer. I am aware that in the spring break episode of The Gilmore Girls, the famous Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell interview The Power of Myth was used as a punchline – Rory and Paris choose to watch it instead of going out and participating in various springbreakia. In the episode, The Power of Myth is specifically lampooned as a poor beach choice. But they are wrong! First of all, that was a video version. Who wants to watch two old guys sit and talk for 9 hours? Read the book version! It’s portable! The Power of Myth is a transcript of this famous interview. It’s easy to read in little snippets, because its like reading a play – you can read a bit of “dialogue” then put it down. A bit of insane, awesome, world-view-changing dialogue. The Power of Myth is the single most mind-blowing book I’ve ever read. When I was reading it I often audibly gasped; observers probably thought I was reading some kind of action novel… Nope! I was reacting to philosophical points because I’m awesome.
The Power of Myth will change your perception of story, change your perception of other people’s perception of story and help you come to a greater understanding of the things that you share with the rest of humanity. What does your consciousness have in common with everyone else’s? Joseph Campbell knows! Also, here is simply explained “The Hero’s Journey” that you’ve probably had thrown at you by your average Star Wars fan, TVTropes enthusiast or English teacher. Gain some knowledge and throw it back! The fact that I might woo myself a Rory Gilmore probably played a part in my fandom of Mr. Campbell, but I’m sure a knowledge about the monomyth could reel in a literary badboy like Jess as well, because honestly, no one liked Dean or Logan.
4. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
A mystery book written for children that presents one of my favorite puzzles that I failed to solve. No mystery novel for grownups has left me legitimately guessing – and caring – about the outcome like Raskin’s The Westing Game. What’s a better beach read than a mystery? The Westing Game presents a puzzle that is difficult, but legitimately solvable from the clues given. No twists here – everything is laid out for you, you just need to figure it out. It may be a children’s book, but who enjoys a mystery more than a child? Discovery and “figuring things out” are the domain of children, so why not experience it through a book intended for them?
5. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott
Novelist Jasper Fforde, whose name has consecutive F’s, said Flatland used up the last truly original idea. He might be right – it’s a really original idea. Flatland is a sci-fi novella that takes place on a 2D plane. All of the characters lack depth. No, this isn’t Twilight-style lack of depth– the character’s are literally two-dimensional creatures. And it’s awesome. The first half of Flatland describes the two dimensional society; it’s a satire on the absurdities of Victorian society, but a lot of it still applies to the absurdity of our current society, you know sexism and classism and whatnot. In the second half, the protagonist, “A. Square,” is taken out of Flatland and into other realms of existence. Imagine if Mario was conscious of the change between Super Mario World 2 and Super Mario 64. The change from only understanding 2D to being in 3D. That’s what Flatland is about. The author asks the question: what if there’s something more than what we can understand, relative to a 2D being realizing the 3D universe? What’s really amazing about Flatland is that it was written over 100 years ago, and explores some pretty crazy themes. It’s not the easiest read, but it’s broken up into easy to digest chunks.
6. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Possibly my favorite book printed this millenium, The Magicians is often heralded as Harry Potter for grown-ups, but I don’t think that’s right– Harry Potter is Harry Potter for grownups. Existential Harry Potter is far more apt, if you insist on the comparison. Quentin Coldwater is a wizard without purpose, a sorcerer lacking the “find yourself” spell. If Harry Potter is perfect for making the transition from childhood to adulthood, then The Magicians is perfect for the transition from college to *gasp* real life. Lev Grossman’s poignant page-turner is great for your spiritually lost liberal arts post-grad who still believes in magic.
Are they any great edifying-but-fun reads I might have missed? Let me know in the comments! Go forth and simultaneously enlighten and entertain yourselves! Happy summer!
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