The Books of Summer
Our reviewers on vacation-ready fiction and nonfiction, along with guides to summer pleasures—and our readers weigh in on the books that capture the essence of the season.
By WSJ Books StaffUpdated May 28, 2021 5:12 pm ET
Summer is the season of leisure and breaking from routine—whether that involves a hammock on a warm afternoon in a backyard, a day at the seaside or a long-awaited trip to a cabin in the woods. We asked readers of the WSJ’s weekly Books newsletter to select books that capture the essence of summer for them. Whether reaching back to their childhoods or drawing on more recent memories of enchanting summer reads, that question produced a fascinating array of literary escapes—recommendations that go perfectly with our survey of new summer-ready fiction, plus books on golf, the great outdoors, road trips and the art of the grill.
For many, there’s no beach read that’s better than a truly beachy read. That might mean a family-at-the-vacation-home generational saga like J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Maine” (2011) or the coming-of-age tale Colson Whitehead sets in a Hamptons enclave of vacationing black families in “Sag Harbor” (2009). Emitom Hillsman calls out Elin Hildebrand’s Nantucket-set romance “28 Summers” (2020) for seaside escapism. But the same yearning for sea air could take the form of a memoir of the waves, experienced not from the viewpoint of the beach blanket but the dynamic perch of the surfer, as in William Finnegan’s autobiographical “Barbarian Days” (2015), recommended by Zachary Chamberlin. Life as seen from the lifeguard’s chair can seem particularly precious when it’s adjacent to the scruffy world of teens in 1980s New York, as in Jill Eisenstadt’s knowing and funny “From Rockaway” (1987), which was highlighted as a favorite by Colette Pearl, among others.
For some, the appeal of the summer book is the distance it takes you from the everyday. If you can’t get to an island in real life, why not travel to one in a book? Reader Elizabeth Black recommends Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” (1927), and while Woolf’s rich psychological portraits and daring prose may not initially sound like a typical summer read, its setting amid a vividly rendered family summer retreat in the Hebrides makes it a transporting experience. Sean Benson suggests that the “perfect summer idyll” is Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals” (1956), about the author’s eccentric childhood years—with beasts aplenty—spent on the Greek island of Corfu.
But for a more profound sense of escape, a tale set on a boat at sea provides a particular enchantment for many. Leigh Patten suggests Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” (1900), his light-hearted but adventure-filled account of his single-handed circumnavigation of the world. In a similarly salt-saturated vein, Richard Gollwitzer loves sailor and pilot Ernest K. Gann’s “Song of the Sirens” (1968), which tells stories from a lifetime on the water. If the open ocean doesn’t seem eventful enough a destination (or if you’re prone to seasickness) you might prefer the heady two-wheeled journey through America’s byways in Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974) as recommended by Ken Walker.
Summer is also, of course, a season for sports, with baseball’s post-pandemic return bringing a particular celebratory air to the diamond this year. To capture the particular thrill of a great baseball summer, Seth Hirschfeld suggests a double header in the form of two David Halberstam classics, “The Summer of ’49” (1989), in which the Yankees and Red Sox battled for postwar supremacy, and “October 1964” (1994), which follows the season the upstart St. Louis Cardinals took on the Yankees’ dominance.
Many of our readers wrote with memories of the books that had captured the special nature of childhood summers. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) seems so thoroughly identified with school-required reading that it seems unfair to pose it as a great book for the season of leisure, but we couldn’t help but appreciate a note from Diane Butler, who reminds us that Harper Lee folded into her novel a sense of how summer, and summer friendships, hold a special place in childhood memory: “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.”
Childhood summer reading, of course, can run into a supply and demand problem, given the tendency of young readers to burn through the books they love. J.C. Biaggio recalls one such dilemma vividly: “I remember reading, as a 10 year old, my entire Nancy Drew book in the first few hours of a three-week trip, my parents’ unhappiness at how quick I read it and their pleasure at me rereading it every day on the remainder of the trip.” A hot, sibling-crowded car became a different world via the “joy with the distraction reading afforded.”
But when we asked our newsletter subscribers to name a single book that captures the fleeting magic of childhood summers, one title came up again and again in emails: Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” (1957), a novel-in-stories in which a boy’s summer adventures in an Illinois town (much of which was based on Bradbury’s childhood memories) are tinged with fantasy and a halo of artful nostalgia. Douglas Rushing remarks that it conjures up a season of “dandelions, friends, monarch butterflies, warm days, dogs, and more.” And as Joseph Marr wrote: “I know of no better book that describes the joy and introspection of boyhood.”
Get great reading recommendations delivered to your inbox and join the conversation. Sign up for the weekly Books newsletter.