Summer Reading

What some notables are stacking on their beach blankets this year

Allan Gurganus
Allan Gurganus is the author of the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, the story collection White People, and The Practical Heart: Four Novellas.

Notes on Summer Books Soon to Smell of Coppertone:

I turn fifty-nine this summer: the ideal age and season for rereading. Forgetfulness has benefits; how new all college classics seem! My most recent enthusiasm is for top-drawer second-rank short-story writers. I find that, both as a writer and as a reader, these relax me as might eating endless no-cal sushi. John O’Hara, Somerset Maugham, Booth Tarkington, Saki, Alfred Chester, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, H. P. Lovecraft, Sarah Orne Jewett, Aldous Huxley, all leap to mind. Graham Greene and V. S. Pritchett’s underrated short stories make ideal reading by the sea. Each cunning, hilarious, and sexy tale seems just long enough to warm you between chill bodysurfings. And I finally feel old enough to inhale Colette’s short novels Chéri and The Last of Chéri. I’ll now identify with the bruised vanity of the works’ aging courtesan, not—as long ago—with her pitiless and slippery young man.

My writing a novel concerning one Baptist church requires my reading all lyrics from the Broadman Hymnal (1940). Not since Dawn of the Dead has anything proved scarier.

Singularities: Landmarks on the Pathways of Life, by Nobel physiologist Christian de Duve, will prove the un-beachiest of my season’s nonfiction. This directly written work surveys life’s molecular cosmos, speculating on its true genesis. The lucid charts and (for me) difficult mathematical formulae promise to recall my college days, for good and ill. Finally, that done, I’ll take to the Atlantic a memoir by an artist I admire: actress Ellen Burstyn. Her new Lessons in Becoming Myself is no star turn and was not ghosted; it promises Burstyn’s full emotional range, her wrenching Detroit girlhood, and a long jolt of her unaccountable nimbus.

Ronald Steele
Ronald Steel’s books include Walter Lippmann and the American Century and In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy.

I plan to read Elaine Pagels’s Gnostic Gospels. The discovery of the Judas Gospel has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to do so for years. Not being religiously inclined, I’d like to know a lot more about the Gnostics and their emphasis on knowledge over revelation. They sound like my kind of guys. No wonder the Church repressed them.

Caitlin Flanagan
A staff writer at The New Yorker, Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books made up the great literary cycle of my childhood; my mother and I read them over and over, starting with Little House in the Big Woods and reading straight through The First Four Years before going back to the beginning again. But we never so much as cracked the cover of Farmer Boy, the author’s account of husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York. A book about a boy? Who could care less? But now I have two little boys, who have proved themselves worthy fans of Laura’s childhood. It’s time for them, and me, to meet the other half.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, by Betty MacDonald. When I was a child, the Internet was unborn and the interlibrary loan was in its infancy. Thus, even if a Cragmont Elementary School student loved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic, and if she saw, right on the cover of both books, that there was another title in the series, there was no way for her to get her hands on it. A rumor developed within the tribe of Piggle-Wiggle fans at Cragmont that the library didn’t carry Farm because it wasn’t any good. This summer, my boys and I are going to find out.

Story of O, by Pauline Réage. Because if not now, when?

Dale Peck
Dale Peck is a novelist and critic. His books include Martin and John and Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction.

I’m heading to a writing colony for six weeks, so I’ve been carefully considering what to bring. Top of the list is Henry James’s Ambassadors. I’ve wanted to reread it since I read The Talented Mr. Ripley, which references it three or four times.

I’m reading Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul right now, and packing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience to follow it up. And then I’ll leaf through a classic grammar called The Trivium, by Sister Miriam Joseph, because I want a more formal understanding of basic rhetoric. The one contemporary book I plan on taking is Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.

Lynda Obst
A producer at Paramount Pictures, Lynda Obst is the author of Hello, He Lied: & Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches. Her movies include Sleepless in Seattle, The Siege, Contact, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Hope Floats, The Fisher King, and Flashdance.

This notion of summer reading presumes I have a summer of leisure in which to read at the beach or something, to which I say, Alas—or, in Hollywood parlance, As if. But if I do have such a summer, and can get away, I’ll take one or more of the following books, which I bought this year and which sit staring at me from my bedroom bookshelf, reproachfully.

I’m developing a sci-fi project with the astrophysicist Kip Thorne, involving wormholes, gravitational waves, and getting lost in multiverses. So that I can understand what we’re doing, I’ll browse/read Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages. When I get frustrated with that, I’ll pick up Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony, by Marcia Bartusiak, for the same reason. Since this has fewer equations, I’ll read more of it.

I’ve been dying to read A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s memoir of growing up in Israel. I admire his unblinking yet loving way of looking at his homeland, where I’ve never been, though it feels as familiar as my own neighborhood when I read anything he writes.

I’ll read Allegra Goodman’s Intuition—again—because like all her books, which I get the day they come out, it went by way too fast. Scientific fraud and self-deception intersect in this impeccably executed, graceful narrative. (I may foolishly try to make it into a movie, which it isn’t.)

Then I might read Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill. I actually found two separate copies in my house, so I must really want to read it.

Joseph O'Neill
A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Joseph O’Neill is the author of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History and the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes.

On a pebbled Turkish beach, I shall read: mournfully, That They May Face the Rising Sun, the last novel of John McGahern, who died this year; expectantly, a galley of a first novel by Katherine Min, Secondhand World (due out in October); and for the umpteenth time, and with an eye toward an epigraph for my novel-in-completion, my old copy of C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, a rapturous memoir of West Indian cricket and so much more.

Tom Ford
The former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and formerly the vice chairman of the management board of Gucci Group, Tom Ford currently heads his own film production company, Fade to Black.

I’ll start with Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black-and-White Ball, by Deborah Davis. I’m lucky to have known Capote, and his Black and White Ball was one of the most talked-about social events of the sixties. In photographs it looks quite tame by today’s party standards, and of course there is something silly about a grown man being so obsessed with social standing and gossip. Yet the way that Truman manipulated people during this stage of his life is fascinating. This book covers the party, and the planning of it, in the most minute detail.

Another book I want to read this summer is Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. The two bloggers who wrote it discuss why the Democrats are losing elections, and what is necessary for them to regain control.

I would also like to read Broken Screen: 26 Conversations With Doug Aitken Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative, edited by Noel Daniel. For someone as interested in contemporary visual culture as I am, the artist Doug Aitken’s interviews with the likes of Robert Altman, Kenneth Anger, Matthew Barney, Rem Koolhaas, and Ed Ruscha are essential reading.

Then, for fun: The Diviners, Rick Moody’s satire on television, the entertainment business, and American culture; Lucy Ellmann’s hysterical-sounding Doctors & Nurses; and finally, The Accidental, by Ali Smith, about a stranger who manipulates and seduces the members of a family, and which sounds like an update of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Theorem.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In