Time to kick off your shoes, take a swim, lie back on a towel in the sun or in the shade of a tree and open a book that will match the warmth you soak in with every cell. You want something sumptuous, something with a bit of magic. You want something to ignite your imagination. You want love, travel, laughter and delight.
Here’s a list of ten of my favorite classic summer reads.
1. Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
When we think of Ray Bradbury, we think first of his dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. Dandelion Wine, though, is another thing entirely. Set in the summer of 1928, in Green Town, a fictional town based on Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, it follows the protagonist, 12-year-old, Douglas Spaulding. If dandelion wine is summer in a bottle, then this book contains all the pleasures we might remember from our youth, and then some.
2. Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins
Jitterbug Perfume will take you from 8th Century Bohemia to present day Paris, and along the way you’ll encounter a king, a waitress, the goat god Pan, perfume, immortality, and the perfect taco. This is Robbins at his finest.
3. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
What sort of summer reading list would this be without “Lo-lee-ta”?
4. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Inspired by Kerouac’s life after the publication of On the Road, The Dharma Bums is thinly-veiled autobiography, following the wanderings of the narrator Ray Smith and his friend Japhy Ryder, based on the poet Gary Snyder. This book sings with the exuberance of summer. “Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that’s the way to live.”
5. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
Set in England, in the Pentecostal Society in which Winterson was raised, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit might seem an odd choice for a summer read; but this semi-autobiographical, coming-out novel is funny, quirky, and utterly delightful.
6. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Following the romance of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza, this novel pulses with desire and is a testament to steadfast love. Though Fermina marries someone else, Florentino never stops loving her, and when her husband dies some fifty years later, he proclaims his love to her again. “The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.”
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
While we’re on the theme of unrequited love, Jake and Brett can’t help but come to mind. Paris, Spain, heat and alcohol, bull-fighting and desire. This is the Hemingway to which I always return.
8. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Written at the age of 23, in the hopes of winning Zelda back, Fitzgerald’s debut, semi-autobiographical novel was an instant classic of the Lost Generation. Telling the story of Princeton student Amory Blaine, it is as clever as it is tender. “I’m not sentimental–I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last–the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.”
9. Amerika, Franz Kafka
Published posthumously, Amerika is Kafka’s most humorous novel. It tells the story of Karl Rossmann who, in the wake of his scandalous affair with a housemaid, is shipped off to America by his parents. What ensues is a comedy of miscalculations, wonderfully odd escapades, and surprising turns. In my twenties I fell so in love with this novel, I read it aloud to revel in the sheer joy of it.
10. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
In a rhythmic, seamless pull from sunrise to sunset, The Waves (which is, I would argue, Woolf’s masterpiece) weaves the soliloquies of six characters, following them from the time they are young children walking the shoreline until they face their death. Dreamlike and lush, her prose is poetry, merging the voices into a single consciousness. “There was a star riding through clouds one night, & I said to the star, ‘Consume me’.”