10 books you should read this summer.
Winter reading was difficult for me this year.
Books didn’t interest me. Nothing made my scalp tingle. All the books I picked up felt too self-conscious, or full of wooden characters and boring dialogue. I didn’t want to read another descriptive passage about fescue grass, interior monologue about a missing father, or story about people in cities who live superficial lives.*
It was a sad winter for me. This made it hard for me to write. I wasn’t inspired. I tried to write, but it felt forced. I told myself I should just quit, and had this dark thought: why add something mediocre to the shelves when they’re overflowing with mediocre books already?
At one point in February or March (honestly, those bleak months have melded together in my mind) I actually said to a friend, “Ugh, I hate books. I hate reading.”
My friend laughed a knowing laugh, probably because he reads books for a living. Then we both sighed, because that feeling is heartbreaking.
I kept at it. I kept showing up. True, I also watched a lot of Netflix. But I tried reading every day. I used my public library. I told myself I didn’t have to read anything I didn’t love, but that I would keep trying.
My reading rules are unforgiving: I only want to read books and stories that SURPRISE me, ENTERTAIN me, and/or INSTRUCT me as a writer. If they do all three at once – shazam! If they don’t do any of those three things – I don’t finish them.
There were many books I didn’t finish this winter. Occasionally, though, one would stand out. When this happened, it felt like opening a window in a stuffy room.
I kept a running list of those open-window titles. I promised myself that when I hit ten books that I loved because they surprised, entertained, and/or instructed me as a writer, I would give them to you. That kept me going.
I finally got there!
These are the books that broke through my winter funk and showed me that I actually do care about reading and writing. They’re not all fiction, and they’re not all new releases. They’re listed in no particular order. I don’t promise that you’ll love them the way I did, but if you’re in a reading funk it’s a place to start, at least.
At the bottom of this post there’s a link so you can download the list as a PDF.
* Not that these topics couldn’t be written in a surprising, entertaining, and instructional way. They totally could. Except maybe fescue grass.**
**Okay, I bet someone could describe fescue grass and still make it surprising.
At Least Ten Books You Should Read This Summer
1a) The Keep by Jennifer Egan
This one entertained me so much I read it in two days. Instruction: Dialogue can be easy and fun and loose. POV is something to play with. Add mystery. Make something outrageous. Be present in your scenes. Surprising? Beyond.
1b) A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This one hits all 3: Surprising (she shocked me in the first few pages), entertaining (funny!) and instructional (short stories can be chapters, too – and the best chapters hold their own the way stories do. Pay close attention to every single character, don’t be afraid of depth and breadth).
2. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Like Goon Squad, it’s a collection of linked stories that can read as a novel. This book reminded me that sentences don’t have to be complex to be good – they just have to be honest. You don’t have to use fancy syntax to make it feel deep. And simple doesn’t mean uncomplicated.
3. Life Is About Losing Everything by Lynn Crosbie
Pure and utter language magic. Reminded me that writing can be pure power. Electrifying, terrifying. How can a few sentences do that to my heart? She’s a poet, that’s why. When I read this, I picked up my pen again. I credit this book with bringing me back to writing this winter.
4. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins
This book reminded me of being in San Francisco last year. Also, his dialogue is fun and interesting - like Flowers For Algernon, but with a computer. True, there’s an absent-father plot, but it’s done in a surprising way. Later I talked to a computer-scientist friend about it and learned that part of what I thought Hutchins made up is based on reality – and this made one part of the story even more interesting.
5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My friend Cecilia lent me this one, a YA novel, after she heard me despairing about books. The dialogue is truly great. Reading this book lifted me out of a dark place. Which is funny, because it’s an awesomely tragic book: it’s about kids dying of cancer. But it strikes the funny/sad chord perfectly. Plus it takes place in Indianapolis, so the Hoosier half of me loved the setting. What takes place in Indianapolis?
6a) Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross
Some of these stories punched me out. There’s one in here that uses the adverb “superferociously” – when I read this, it woke me up, like hearing a bell. It reminded me of why I’m a writer. I took a picture of the sentence as a memento.
6b) Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
Whoa, plot. Instructive. Also: don’t be afraid of genre. “Literary fiction” can feel like a cage. Write something outrageous, write something that’s difficult. Surprising? Oh, yeah, it’s surprising.
7. Happier At Home by Gretchen Rubin
The publisher sent this to me last fall because she thought I would like it. It was the first time a book was sent to me because of my website, so I was surprised! This book was mostly instructive – but I was entertained too, because oh my god I love to-do lists. Gretchen Rubin is methodical and disciplined and she knows how to make habits stick. It was a dark winter for me, and I needed more happiness in my home. Because of this book, I quit drinking, I printed out photos of my friends and put them up where I could see them, I bought a new writing desk (one made of real wood!), and I cleared my shelves, leaving one empty one. The positive effects of these actions are undeniable. I’m grateful for this unexpected gift, because this is not a book I would have picked up on my own.
8. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Frances gave me this book of short essays for my birthday last year. Turns out Cheryl Strayed and I have the same birthday, so really she gave it to me for our birthdays! There’s an essay in it she wanted me to read called “Write Like a Motherfucker.” It is, indeed, life-changing, and all writers who resist writing should read it ASAP. But this book had my heart at the introduction, which is written by Steve Almond. Instructional? Yes. Strayed shows me how to be honest. Entertaining? Yes. Surprising? Yes, actually. All three.
9. Happy Trails to You by Julie Hecht
I read this book last summer. Then I read it again in the fall. I read it a third time this winter, when there was nothing else I could bear to look at. This is a book I can always count on. Hecht’s writing is plotless and exact and funny and alarming. She shows you that all states of mind are valid and worth writing. The fact that I’m so interested in the voice of her narrator – I can open this book at any page and start reading with focus – is a reminder not to worry about plot. The first rule of good writing is to be intimate with life itself. Also: write whatever you want to read. This book blurs novel/stories/personal essay marketing categories. Hecht doesn’t care where you think the book should fit - it’s so obvious she didn’t write this for a sales-and-marketing team.
10. Malarky by Anakana Schofield
What a trip. What a treat. Taught me something new about point of view and voice. Also about character, and what kind of work needs to be done to truly know one! Also: write with abandon. Write about the things you’re afraid to write about. Don’t be afraid to be bad, to be shocking. And again, the lesson that just doesn’t stop: be honest.
Take this list to the awesome people who work at your independent bookstore. Or your library. Or tuck it into your e-reader cover.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.