“The Daughter of Time” (1951), by the Scottish mystery writer Josephine Tey, begins with its detective laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, isolated and dispirited. But he pulls himself together. From his bed, he conducts a thrilling literary investigation into one of the great historical mysteries of the ages: whether Richard III really killed his nephews, the poor doomed princes in the tower. It’s a particularly satisfying response to an unexpected confinement.
Here in 2020, as the spring of our anxiety gives way to the summer of our discontent, we face a similar predicament. We can’t go far. Our worlds feel muffled, sad, small, lonely, scary, boring. We’re caring for older relatives, looking after young children, stranded in the city, yearning for places we can’t visit and people we can’t see.
Our relationship with books feels different, too. The long and lazy days of summer are usually a time to relax and soften into the pleasures of reading, ideally someplace near the water, a cool drink in your hand, the sun radiating overhead, nothing to do but enjoy yourself. But when pleasure is scarce, when the outdoors is a luxury, when we feel stuck in an endless frightening present — when summer isn’t really summer — what does it mean for summer reading?
It may be tempting to binge-watch our way through these next months. But TV washes over you. Reading draws you in. Books that absorb us, books that calm us down, books that comfort us, books that remind us we are not alone but part of the grand sweep of history, books that surprise and enchant us — this is what we’re looking for. Maybe this literary summer will mean reading a succession of fiendish thrillers; or maybe it will mean finally tackling Trollope. Whatever works. We are making this up as we go along.
Many years ago, when I was little, my family spent the summer in a rented house on a tiny Greek island. Left alone to a near-criminal degree, my brother and I ran wild. We got lost; we were wounded by sea urchin spines. That sort of freedom feels distant now, irrelevant to our current circumstance. But we were also so bored. (No internet, no TV, dearth of other kids.) We loved to read, and when we finished the books we’d brought with us, we foraged.
People leave weird reading material in their rental houses. So if you’re lucky enough to be in someone else’s bucolic cottage this summer, be sure to investigate the shelves. In Greece, a lot of the books on those shelves were in Greek. But, in English, we found an old stack of mysteries by Ngaio Marsh, the excitingly named New Zealand author. I also read Robert K. Massie’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1967), which stood out not for the rigour of its scholarship or the sweep of its story but for the thrilling (and mostly unintelligible; I was only 7) descriptions of blood disorders, murderous intent and people who take a long time to die.
Even if we can’t go anywhere right now, we can still find serendipitous books at home, left behind by someone else or stashed, forgotten, in a cupboard. Their moment has come.
This summer is a great time to fall into fictional worlds within other fictional worlds, embodiments of the novel’s ability to tantalise and liberate our imaginations. The youngish-adult novel “Born to Trot” (1950), by Marguerite Henry, is also written from the perspective of a person in bed; it’s a further reminder that physical confinement is no barrier to imaginative freedom. A young man falls ill with an unspecified something and is sent to a sanitarium for a long rest. He is rescued by a book — the tale of the great American harness horse Hambletonian — and the second book is cunningly there within the first, embedded inside the story.
For other pleasingly nested books, try Arthur Phillips’s “The Tragedy of Arthur” (2011), which weaves into the main story a newly discovered play that might be a lost Shakespeare work; or Anthony Horowitz’s whodunit-within-a-whodunit “Magpie Murders” (2016), the tale of an editor who is reading a manuscript, the entirety of which is there for us to read, too; or Italo Calvino’s classic second-person love letter to fiction, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (1979).
Magic and fantasy are not for everyone, but oh, they are for me right now, when I long to step through the window into another world. There’s nothing like a magical book from your childhood to transport you, and I adore the stories of Edward Eager from the 1950s and 1960s, with their bookish protagonists and their cross-referential magical adventures, homages to the British writer E. Nesbit. But grown-ups have their own versions in the books of Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Susanna Clarke (read “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” for starters), Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” series or the latest by Leigh Bardugo, “Ninth House,” set at a version of Yale teeming with magic. For science fiction that pierces your heart, read Ted Chiang
Sometimes lately it feels that a good day is one in which you successfully change out of your pyjamas. But even now there is the tantalising prospect of incremental self-improvement.
This summer’s project might be the Russian novels you never got to before, or the first four volumes of Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson, or “How Proust Can Change Your Life” (1997), in which Alain de Botton reads Proust so you don’t have to.
Maybe you want to learn how not to kill the person you love. For that, there’s Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” (2006), the thesis of which — that it is fiendishly hard to reconcile erotic excitement with too much togetherness — is being played out by millions of couples across the world right now.
No matter who we’re living with, we’d love to get away. One of my favorite moments in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series comes in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (1952), when the characters see a painting of a great ship, begin to smell and hear and feel the sea, and find themselves suddenly transported to that ship and that sea. Some books are perfect for reminding us what that feels like, the sights and scents and freedom of the outdoors. John Vaillant’s nonfiction work “The Golden Spruce” (2005) is a missing-person mystery, a history of logging and its effect on the environment, and a stunning evocation of the beauty and wildness of the great forests and bodies of water in British Columbia. “Swimming Home” (2012), by Deborah Levy, and “Call Me by Your Name” (2007), by Andre Aciman, make you feel that you, too, are on a sexy European vacation by a pool. (With remarkably different results.)
Finally, if you find yourself worrying, as many of us are, about the capacity of ordinary people to withstand emotional hardship, there’s nothing like the quiet beauty of Marilynne Robinson’s great series — start with “Gilead” (2004) and keep going — to restore your faith in the complicated goodness of the human heart. A fourth book in the series is coming this fall, giving us something to look forward to and assuring us that even when times are hard, good books will always welcome us in.
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