Every year, about this time, my Instagram feed fills up with pictures of books. They’re piled somewhere between five and ten inches high, sometimes stacked neatly, sometimes in pleasing disarray. There’s invariably a Booker prize winner or shortlistee in there, along with that novel everyone’s been raving about since August, and a self-help book masquerading as an important comment on our times. Maybe there’s a classic or two, a slender small-press gem, and the next big thing in new release nonfiction.
There’s an art to the summer reading stack, of course. It’s balanced in genre, represents diversity of authorship, covers off at least two major preoccupations of the zeitgeist while nodding to the greats of literature past. These are all good things. And there’s something really comforting about pictures of exciting books by great writers in good company, tinted with soft yellow and accompanied by words of reader enthusiasm.
But I can’t help but wish for a little honesty. Because you’re probably not going to read that 700-page literary prizewinner this summer, are you? And when you flop down on your beach towel/poolside deck chair/the couch after a summer bender, are you really going to pick up that terribly important but probably quite difficult political nonfiction? Or are you just going to flick on the TV and watch Henry Cavill grunt woodenly for three hours?
It’s not that those books don’t deserve to be read – the merits of authorship or the contribution to literature made by the worthy writers in these visual reading lists has nothing to do with it. It’s just that like most things we post on social media, the summer reading stack is both aspirational and performative: “I want to be the kind of person who reads books like this on my summer holiday,” it says. But implicit in the act of posting the photo for public consumption is the hope that we become someone who is at least seen as the kind of person who reads those books on their summer holiday – whether or not we do actually read them.
And sometimes reading is hard. Even if you #lovereading, sometimes it’s an obligation rather than a joy. The irony of the thing you love more than anything turning into the thing that you dread is perhaps the cruellest of them all. For a lot of us, the more that books and writing feature in our work and study, the more likely we are to feel overwhelmed by the need to read as much as possible, and the social pressure to be seen doing so.
Personally, when it comes to my summer downtime, the last thing I want to do is read very serious and important things. If I’m going to read at all, it’s going to be impulsive, haphazard, and not very Insta-worthy.
My honest summer reading stack would look something like this:
The first two chapters of a weighty tome I keep saying I’ll read but will more than likely never finish
Three Georgette Heyer romances, back to back (sleep optional)
Sundry articles spat up by algorithm on Facebook
Half of a trashy thriller found on the sparse bookshelf of a beachside AirBnB
The new Ann Patchett, because there’s an exception to every rule and she can do no wrong
I am an advocate of reading widely and well. I’m an advocate of reading important books, not just fun ones. I’m even an advocate of occasionally filtering day-to-day life through a flattering sepia lens.
But I’ve come to think of reading like a muscle: it needs regular exercise in order to be capable of running a marathon or getting through that doorstopper – but it also needs rest. Sometimes you just need to do an easy lap of the neighbourhood, maybe stopping to look at the birds for a bit instead of keeping track of your pace, then eat a good meal and zonk out.
And sometimes you need to do absolutely nothing whatsoever. And that’s OK too.