Illustration: Thomas Allen
Quite often I am asked to recommend, as a practice, the habit of "reading." I like to do this, though I always feel a little phony. To recommend something implies that its presence in your life is a positive choice, like playing tennis or avoiding gluten. For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn't a "lifestyle choice." Rather, I made the choice—if that's what it was—so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind. I think that if I were a very good swimmer, I would be proud to be so, but being proud of being a reader, in my case, is like being proud you have feet. I don't feel much pride when, on the way to somebody's house for dinner, I stuff several books into my handbag for...well, for what? Can I really not manage a brief subway ride without textual support? Is that normal? Are there other people who, when watching a documentary set in a prison, secretly think, as I have, Wish I had all that time to read?

What I'm describing is a condition that might be termed "pathological reader syndrome." My acquisition and digestion of books is, to be frank, absurd. Just get a Kindle, everyone advised me a few years ago. Yet here I am, packing for a short flight between London and Belfast, with my Kindle, certainly, but also with four or five hardback books jammed into my hand luggage, just in case. Just in case we happen to fly through a wrinkle in time in which an hour expands to accommodate infinity.

While I'm not sure I can recommend living this way, I can say that if you are similarly afflicted, summer is your season: The beach is one of the few places pathological readers can pass undetected among their civilian cousins. Of course, summer calls for a particular kind of book. In August, in a hammock, I find that one sentence must flow unobstructed to the next, and the people I'm reading about should struggle and die and confess their eternal love for one another. Tolstoy is excellent for hammock reading, especially Anna Karenina, War and Peace (skipping over the essays at the end) and any of his shorter stories. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is, likewise, utter heaven. More recently I forgot I had a life while reading of lives torn apart by the Biafran war in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun. The epic inaction of our summer holidays is perhaps what makes them suitable for the reading of epics, especially those set in times of war. When I am doing nothing but watching a 4-year-old dig a large hole in the sand, it's nice to know that somewhere else the Russian army is advancing. I once went to the Bahamas with my mother and brothers, but in truth I went on holiday with Daniel Deronda. A decade later, I still remember Eliot's sentences better than the charms of the company.

NEXT STORY

Comment

LONG FORM
ONE WORD