by Faith Childs

Conventional wisdom holds that we take to the lake house, beach or mountains with a pile of summer reading — light fare designed to entertain, to provide an escape from our normal existence. Beach reading, it’s called. The summer months are perfect for indulging in the guilty pleasure of plunging headlong into “la literature de gare,” as the French refer to those juicy shop and sex novels, or a roman a clef where we might be able to pick out the boldface names.

Often in mass market format — the thick, rack-sized paperbacks frequently sold with covers embossed with gold lettering — I always found the best part was tearing off the pages I had read and dumping them in the nearest trash can. Why bother to carry something that wouldn’t find a permanent place in one’s library?

I’ve consumed many of these with relish over the years. While such books are frequently formulaic, there is nevertheless something very satisfying about the predictability of the heroine/hero — invariably attractive, who does the right thing in the end — where, unlike life, all the plot strands weave themselves together, and there is the thrill of a happy ending. Nothing satisfies like a good piece of commercial fiction.

Be bold, and take a different approach this summer. Rather than cozying up with mind candy, push yourself a bit, and read something different. The rewards are considerable; I dare say incomparable. The sense of stimulating one’s mind, pushing oneself a bit, and inhabiting a difficult or arcane subject will prove so seductive that you’ll wonder why you’ve not sought out such titles in the past. You will have fun as well.

What follows are some recommendations for summer reading. Not all are weighty; some are old classics that endure. I’ve included some nonfiction, too, along with one reference book and some big books that lend themselves to being read over a number of days.

Read and enjoy. If I have missed any of your favorites, let me know in the comments below or by email: [email protected].


The Oxford Companion to Wine
by Jancis Robinson
Wonderful, and it contains everything one might want to know on the subject. Great for browsing.

Istanbul: Memories and the City
by Orhan Pamuk
Beautiful writing about the city of the Nobel laureate’s birth.

Fat Girl: A True Story
by Judith Moore
A memoir by a woman whose insights into food, being female and not loving one’s body will strike a familiar chord

Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power
by Marcus Mabry
A biography of the secretary of state. Worth it for the pictures alone.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
by Robert Fisk
Middle East correspondent for The Independent, Fisk dissects the lineage of one of the world’s hot spots with his trademark acumen.

Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas
by Lionel Gossman
Collective biography of Burckhardt, Bachofen, Nietzsche and Overbeck that examines intellectual currents in this influential 19th century city. Thoroughly riveting.

Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas
by Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher
Justice Thomas could be the one person in whom the currents riveting our society in the 1960s and 1970s played out. A balanced picture of a troubled man.

The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin
by Anton Chekhov
After the death of his brother, Chekhov traveled to the remote Russian north. His reporting and observations on the colonies of prisoners and other outcasts there makes fascinating reading.


The Girl with the Golden Shoes
by Colin Channer
An empowering fable with unexpected twists that resonates despite its concise length. Russell Banks deems the work a modern classic worthy of the canon.

The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
Who can resist Lily Bart, the heroine of this novel? One is reminded anew of society’s limits on women’s choices.

by Thomas Bernhard
Written in 1963 and recently reissued, the novel explores the relation between a young medical student and an aging artist in precise, lean language distilling many human truths.

The Man of Feeling
by Javier Marias
A famed tenor ponders his condition in a notable novel from one of Spain’s most esteemed writers.

Talking about It
by Tim Parks
Short fiction about relationships, adultery and other forms of betrayal. Parks understands better than most the masks we wear when we are in love.

The Opposite House
by Helen Oyeyemi
A novel of mesmerizing power about immigrant life in London. Barely in her 20s, Oyeyemi’s command of the language and the novel form are astonishing.

Free Food for Millionaires
by Min Jin Lee
Wonderfully rich and funny novel of the immigrant experience, Korean American in this case. Loved it.

by Lee Vance
Wall Street thriller with a cocky, master-of-the-universe hero/banker at its center whose comeupance drives the action. Lives up to the hype.

Faith Childs is a literary agent in New York and a founding member of Women’s Voices for Change.

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