A few weeks ago I was sitting on a beach on Maui. It was just about as beachy as beachy gets: hot, muggy, flowers having sex all over the place. I was reading the complete Sherlock Holmes. Again. I brought that book on vacation precisely because I’ve read it before, to avoid missing anything by getting all caught up in a new and exciting book. Problem is, Sherlock Holmes is the least sitting-on-a-beach-on-Maui book ever written. It’s all fog and rain and dark city streets and roaring fireplaces. Lots of coats and upholstery. Now, I can’t say off the top of my head what constitutes a good beach read, but I know this wasn’t it. Perhaps I should hang out on more beaches, call it research. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and because we’re coming up on fall again I figured I should try to nail down what exactly makes a book seasonally appropriate. Books are like pumpkin spice or Christmas lights. When used in the wrong weather they’re horrible.
Obviously the setting of the book has a lot to do with it. Something like Sherlock Holmes or Susanna Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell should be read in late fall or winter. They just feel chilly, like you want to cuddle up with them on a gray day. On the other hand, On the Road or Summerland by Michael Chabon are definitely summer novels. Lots of outdoor shenanigans. And some books aren’t really seasonal because they span a long enough period of time. The Lord of the Rings, for example. Or because the season is irrelevant, like Hitchhiker’s Guide.
There’s the rub, though: I think of Hitchhiker’s Guide as a summer book, for absolutely no other reason than having read it in the summer, every time I’ve read it. There are some things that stick in my head and I don’t know why. A few years ago, I was looking for a book outside of my comfort zone and I asked my buddy Janet for a recommendation. She suggested Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which, to my understanding, is set in New York around the time of 9/11. I told her I didn’t want to read it right then because it was hot outside and New York is cold. Obviously she looked at me like I had three heads, but being very forgiving of my quirks and tics, she helped me find something else. But I thought about it later, because I got to thinking about 9/11, and I know for a fact that it was hot out that day, both in New York City and where I was in North Carolina. So what the fuck, brain? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, The Basketball Diaries – all set in New York in the summer and all decidedly summertime reads. I have been to New York City in the middle of the summer and it was hot as fuck. I got on the wrong train and had to walk thirty blocks and the soles melted off of my sandals! But my automatically thinking of New York as cold remains, however illogical.
And then there’s the genre thing. I was looking at books in several airport bookstores on my travels (it’s a compulsion, I have to look) and I definitely noticed a preponderance of horror and mystery titles. Being that I was traveling in July and August, I have to wonder if those stores were catering to the vacationing crowd specifically, or if their stock looks like that year-round and they’re always catering to the weary traveler. Either way, why horror and mystery? Sure, they pump out a lot of cheap paperbacks, but have we gotten so CSI-brained that murder and gore are considered fluffy beach reading? Because I know that I, personally, tend to read more horror in the winter. That whole “dark and stormy night” thing, I guess. I would expect vacation-y books to be lighter fare, junk food for people who only get this one week off a year and want to unwind. But to each their own unwindings, I suppose. I have, in fact, been laughed at in the face for suggesting that science fiction can be as high-minded as canonical literature, so read all the stabby stab you want while you’re at the beach. Fluff is super subjective.
There are books that confound me, though, that would seem better suited to one season but absolutely aren’t. The Stones of Summer is a perfect example. If you can get your hands on a copy I highly recommend it. Obviously, it’s set in the summertime, but it falls squarely on the list of books I would suggest for reading deep in the fall, but before it gets wintery. An October book, for sure. There’s something almost mournful about the way he talks about summer, probably because he’s using it as an allegory for lost childhood (which sounds heavy-handed but is beautifully done). And there are little nods throughout, little moments when he says something that makes you feel like summer has been trapped, caged the way that we tend to hold onto memories of childhood. One line, about a boy sitting on a wall and idly kicking his feet: “He was silent like screaming roses growing in glass houses.” If that’s not a line that belongs to autumn, I don’t know what is.
This all might be just in my head, you guys. And I think I might have a little bit of a seasonal bias because I have a literature degree. My tendency was always to read things over the summer that were as far removed as possible from what I studied in school, all that boring but important shit. Which is how I ended up reading everything by Kurt Vonnegut in about six weeks one year. One does not walk away from that marathon unwarped, my friends. Point is, in the fall, my brain wants to buckle down and get serious, do some work. I start itching for nonfiction or some heavy piece of classic fiction. It’s Pavlovian, almost. And it’s funny, really, because it’s different now that I live in a different climate. I feel like I should be seeing changing leaves and smelling woodsmoke and drying tobacco soon. But there’s none of that here. There’s not going to be one morning when I wake up and the smell is right and the chill is right and I know it’s definitely fall. The light is…what? Leaner, maybe. Gentler. And one day it will start raining. But that’s it. My brain doesn’t know what to do with that. A grouchy wee bugger, my brain.
Anyway, lesson learned. No more Arthur Conan Doyle at the beach for me. I’ll keep you posted on what seasonally anachronistic things I run across this coming winter. I’ve promised to not buy any more books until I get through the forty or so I have sitting in a box, so we’ll see how that goes. It will be a trying experiment, I’m sure. Brain and I will get through it somehow. We always do.