Summer Reading: Junot Diaz, Kathryn Stockett, Other Writers Pick Their Favorite

From Junot Díaz to Kathryn Stockett, writers remember the book that made a summer.

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From Junot Díaz to Kathryn Stockett to Anne Enright, great writers remember the book that made their summer.

For most of us, “summer reading” is a casual shorthand for light fare, pure entertainment, even frivolity. It could be translated to mean “books that don’t make you think,” or “books that are just for fun.” Of course, there are those for whom summer is a time—an endless, dreamy time with one sunny day stretching into the next with no clear division—when you finally get through that impossibly long novel, Proust or Thackeray, that you’ve been meaning to get to for years. Or that you’ve been trying to get through for years. Surely the funniest line on the subject comes in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, when the narrator identifies his aunt Doris to a third party by explaining that his aunt is the one by the pool reading Tolstoy. “That’s how I know it’s the summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace.” Which raises the question, what do authors read in the summer? We decided to ask a few. Here’s what they said.

Geoff Dyer

I have such pleasant memories of being in Paris one blazing summer in the 1990s, chuckling away like mad as I read E. M. Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born. He was still alive back then, and it felt immensely reassuring to know that not far away, in the same city, he was probably penning some more of these hilariously gloomy aphorisms.

Elizabeth Kostova

I spent most of my childhood summers reading up in trees, which always involved finding the broadest branch possible and then trying to focus on the page without rolling off into space. Treasure Island, in a hardback copy that was easy to balance, was one of my favorite arboreal reads. I recently picked it up again and found that it's full of remarkably sophisticated prose. What made us decide, in our era, that children's literature should be written for children? Time to find a good tree.

Alexander McCall Smith

I first dipped into Auden's Collected Poems one summer when I was living in Ireland. I was won over for life. What a humane voice Auden is; what wisdom he shows; what a fine sense he has of the possibilities of the English language. Poetry, like fresh white wine, is ideal for sampling in the summer; read outdoors, under a tree, with a wide sky above. Decades later, I still turn to Auden as an antidote to the pressures of life, as a consolation. In particular, I relish his poem about sitting out on the lawn on a balmy evening, with the stars above him and friends at his side—a vision of the contentment that summer brings.

Kathryn Stockett

The summer I turned 11, I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles while on a road trip from Mississippi to Tennessee. Every July I endured that tedious 10-hour drive in the back of my grandmother's Cadillac, but that summer I started reading when we hit the road, and the next time I looked up we were there. I've been a little in love with Finn ever since.

Alexandra Fuller

Last year, in the heart of Zambia's steamy summer, on my parents' farm on the banks of the Zambezi River, my mother and I read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. On the surface it's a memoir about an ailing woman's touching relationship with a wild snail brought to her sickbed by a kindly, nature-loving friend, but the real message of this quintessentially New England book (with its luscious descriptions of woods and meadows) is about the merits of quiet, deep contemplation. Lyrical, universal, deeply felt, and with an enormously generous soul, the gently told story grants readers a heightened appreciation for the ever-shrinking, ever-fascinating, secretive parts of our unkempt world.

Siri Hustvedt

The highly entertaining Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope.

The profound psychology of Zeruya Shalev's Thera.

The greatest unknown classic of recent American literature, I Remember by Joe Brainard, to be published by the Library of America next year but available in paperback from Granary Books now. Brainard's astonishing little book is a catalog of his own memories. Each entry begins with the words "I remember." For me, as a reader, this incantation became almost magical—a catalyst for remembering what I had forgotten.

Donna Tartt

When I found Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, when I was maybe 8, it was almost literally as if a magic portal had opened up in the library wall. All that summer I was completely gone, sleeping with those books, reading them while I ate, deaf to anything that was said to me and only half aware of my surroundings. They had a marvelous self-generating quality; when you finished one book, there was always another, the Blue Fairy Book, the Yellow, the White, the Olive, the Pink, rainbow doors opening one after another, so there was a spellbound sense of being lost in a story that never ended, like you might wander for a hundred years in a world with talking flowers and swans for brothers and come back to find cobwebs around your house and brambles grown up around the windows.    

Darin Strauss

Good summer books shouldn’t require that we jettison our IQ. The ideal beach read won’t overstrain the old noggin, but does that mean it has to be dumb? Take Martin Amis’s Night Train. It’s rare for a novelist of Amis’s elegance and flair to crank out a pure thriller—effectively to swap his ballet slippers for some disco ankle boots—and the result is a joy-read: The offhand virtuosity shows the average detective writer to be a clubfoot and a lummox. Until its bummer of an ending, Night Train is the smartest, fastest Law & Order episode put to paper—a guilt-free delight.

Karen Russell

This summer I'm looking forward to rereading Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson's post-apocalyptic novel set in the Florida Keys, now "Twicetown," some 50 years after nuclear holocaust has destroyed most of the planet. It's not exactly a light read, but it's definitely a great beach read, set in the marshes of the Florida coast and pervaded with a weird, dark cheer—in fact, the end of the world starts to feel a lot like a nightmare version of happy hour, populated by amnesiacs who seem to be lost in their own permanent July. You might want to read this fever dream of a novel near an ice machine.

Sherman Alexie

In 1980, bored with July, I scanned my father's bookshelf and found Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries. I asked my dad if I could read it, and he said, "Sure, but it's not really about basketball." Carroll's memoir—theological, scatological, and nearly redemptive—made me realize that basketball, poetry, and, yes, addiction are three very closely related ways of pleading to God.

Tea Obreht

I'm a big believer in timing your reading seasonally: nothing's better than enhancing your ambience with echoes of literary experience. My ultimate summer read, therefore, has to be Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. For me, its mesmerizing detail and lightning-fast turns are laced through with memories of sun and rock and the marketplaces of Fethiye, where I was spending the summer. Every time I opened it, I was seized with the overwhelming desire to ditch my relatives and strike out north for Istanbul and its steamy nocturnal secrets.

Chris Adrian

I read Frank Herbert's Dune for the first time one summer as a kid. Summertime, and proximity to the beach in Florida, offered the opportunity to clothe oneself in Saran Wrap and play Fremen in the sand. But aside from that, I think of it as a summer book because it was the first book that ever made me look up from it as I was reading outside and think, "Oh, that's nature all around me."

Anne Enright

There’s nothing like opening a book and seeing the sand of a particular beach shake out from between the pages—in this instance the brown grit of Paleochora in Crete. The year was 1989. I was on my own. The book was Troubles by J. G. Farrell, which is set in a decaying big house in southern Ireland during the war of independence in 1919. And there’s me on the beach after a hardworking winter: half naked, surrounded by German families, laughing my head off in the Cretan sunshine.

Junot Díaz

It was the summer of the steel mill. One of my co-workers was offering to sell me paper targets of black men and rabbis for a cheap price. Another co-worker got his hand pinched off in the rolling mill, and everybody was speculating on how much that severed hand had earned him. Not enough for a boat, one guy said bitterly, apropos of nothing. I don't think I ever hated a job so thoroughly. I had an hour for lunch, though, and on those breaks I sat on the deck overlooking the yard and the Raritan and read. I always read when I'm down or at a loss. I had an issue of Granta—No. 17, I think—that had Greene, Gordimer, Kureishi, Kundera, Lessing, and Ishiguro, that I read cover to cover. But the book that still remains with me was Octavia Butler's Dawn. Her novel was about the traumatized remainder of the human race being forced back to a ruined Earth by aliens in order to participate in a nightmare breeding program. I know: sounds kooky, but it's a beautiful, wrenching story with a knockout female protagonist and a premise that is both gut-turning and all too American. I looked forward to that book. Read a page a day. Made that beauty last. I got through that lousy summer on the back of that book. Gave me a whole new respect for the power of art and for my strength as a person. Gave me a glimpse, too, of what Butler's protagonist would come to know well: Surviving is as much about luck and grit as it is about hope. After all, what's a great book doled out a page a day if not a hymn to hope?

Maud Newton

I read John Colapinto's hilarious, propulsive, and gorgeously written About the Author in a single day almost exactly eight years ago, before the rise, demise, and resurrection of James Frey, when I knew next to nothing about publishing but had great expertise in planning to write and not writing. The novel's narrator, Cal Cunningham, has also perfected this skill. A supposed wordsmith, he spends his days shelving books at a big midtown bookstore, nights going from bar to bar picking up girls and getting laid, and Sunday mornings filling his dull law-student roommate in on his escapades. Our hero's sense of superiority is shattered when he discovers that the roommate hasn't been locked in his room typing tedious legal briefs but working on a novel, one that's actually good, one that sounds suspiciously like Cunningham's own life, so much so that when the roommate dies unexpectedly ... Well, I've already said too much, but it's a remarkable book, a confessional literary thriller that makes you care about its plagiarist narrator even as it reveals him to be a coward and a liar and satirizes the publishing and media world that exalts him.