The Unexpectedly Delightful Books That Can Transform You
There's a particular laziness of the body, in the yellow-grassed, humid fallows of summer, that can strip the mind of what's trivial and open it to the essentials. Sure, to the layperson's eye, you may look like you're doing nothing—maybe floating on a pool raft or lolling on a porch swing. But appearances deceive. With a splayed paperback or scrolling tablet in hand, you may in fact be as far away as the moons of Jupiter. I'm not talking about the bubblegum worlds of beach books that can be picked up at the grocery checkout. I'm picturing a more exotic landscape: the unfamous but brilliant gems, the harder-to-find silver slivers of genius. If you want a secret adventure, the sluggish days of summer can give you both the camouflage and the opportunity.
For me summer has often been a season of stumbling onto extraordinary and lesser-known books on other people's shelves, in dusty secondhand stores in small vacation towns. A few summers ago, staying with friends in a rented cottage overlooking the Hudson River with our three kids underfoot, I immersed myself in Nancy Lemann's languorous, eccentric, and laugh-aloud New Orleans novel The Fiery Pantheon and then—just when the fug of beer and bug spray threatened to lull me into a toxic coma—Liz Jensen's explosive end-times climate-change thriller, The Rapture.
The next August, renting a cut-rate condo on Kauai, I read still odder fare that left me with a feeling of suspension in zero gravity: Seattle writer Stacey Levine's deadpan, existential novel Frances Johnson, so off-kilter and atmospheric it gave me a sudden impression that the ground beneath my feet had fallen away and there I hung, weightless, puzzled, and feeling weird. There was also a hilarious book of bite-size meditations by poet Mary Ruefle called The Most of It, which I lapped up one day while a babysitter tended my children and I allowed myself a rare solo lunch at a café. And on a road trip to Maine last year, staying overnight in a cheap motel en route, I pored over an advance copy of Ben Marcus's delectably neurotic, philosophical, powerfully intelligent story collection Leaving the Sea.
Summer doesn't have to be a downtime for creativity. It can be a period of thrilling, often private penetration into the mental empires of others, of shocking intimacies with the worlds of writers whose unfamiliar, even unorthodox, powers you may at first resist. Overcome your resistance. Surrender to the new. If you find a smart, idiosyncratic, difficult-to-get-into book, stay with it past the first pages. Don't give up. Those foreign and exotic fictions, if only you let yourself be drawn in, may end up transforming you.