It is a good thing Agatha Christie was so prolific; summer is for detective stories. Every year, at just about the same time, the air gets hot, the trees turn green, the college town I live in grows quiet, and Arthur Conan Doyle comes through. Dorothy Sayers as well. And, thanks to the productive industriousness of one Agatha Christie, Poirot and Miss Marple for many summers to come.
For me, reading is intensely seasonal.
I’m in a book club here in Virginia, and I find it difficult. I have always, actually, found book clubs difficult—though also deeply satisfying, all that communing around literature, thought, and friendship. I’ve even initiated a few of the book clubs I’ve been in. But what is hard for me is the reading on-demand. Yes, I may want to read The Catcher in the Rye sometime, but not right now, and not in December. Don’t you know December is for dark fantasy and Victorian novels? The likes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Jane Eyre, Bleak House. Fall is for The Fellowship of the Ring—at least the pre-Bree chapters, almost every year. Spring is for landscape prose: Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry. Mostly stuff about Appalachia, farming, and the local hills, including that long, straight laundry-line that is Dillard’s Tinker Mountain thirty minutes up the road. Late winter and mid-summer and all the gaps between are for Young Adult fiction . . . so really, there may never be a time for Catcher. I am both seasonal and selective.
Who else reads this way, and why?
There’s the association component, for sure. The vestige of a memory of when I first experienced The Hobbit on the way to an autumn community art class. I held open that small, black trade paperback brick with Gollum leering creepily over curly-headed Bilbo’s shoulder. My mom drove and talked; I sat silent in the passenger’s seat of the old ’83 station wagon, engrossed in my first exposure to dwarves, dragons, and Gandalf. Most falls, I repeat the impulse of that seventh-grade self and crack open my favorite part of Fellowship, reading the hobbit friends through from the Shire to Bree, or at least to Bombadil. And then one winter a few years back, in the wonderful calm of those post-holiday months, I filled the gray quiet with Dickens’s Bleak House. I have read something by (or about) Dickens every winter since.
The actual landscape of the book plays a part, too. Frodo and Company set out on their heroic journey on the humble beginnings of September 23rd. Mr. Norrell is discovered in the drear cold of January, and before the book has gone too deep, the magician has blanketed York Cathedral in a still mid-winter snow. In fact, Susanna Clarke explains that she wrote most of her fantasy tome in winter months, and her actual seasons became the imagined: it seems that the magic of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell always comes at a cold time, in a chill place. It’s almost as appropriately, enticingly dreary as the misty moors of Jane Eyre (read every Christmas break in high school and college). Bleak House is more complicated, inside and out. Neither house nor story are actually so bleak as the title suggests. Still, the story is all Dickens, Victorian London is as miry as ever, and winter is the obvious time.
A great book is a place that is in my world as much as I am in the world of its characters, unifying my experience with its own feel and yes, its own weather.Rebecca D. Martin
And of course there are the sentimentally-timed reads, the explanation clearer at hand: at the beach, it’s always Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch. I first read it on a memorable Fourth of July Florida trip with grad school friends. Seven years later, I imagine I can still smell the salt water and sunscreen on the pages; I can picture the condo we stayed in; I recall the sunburn I got on my feet. Anyway, the story itself tells of a school vacation and the Cornwall seaside. What else would I want each trip to the Atlantic coast? Unless it’s Diana Wynne Jones’s Drowned Ammet (fictional sailboats and islands pairing well with a summer trip one year to the Eastern shore), or Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea (shells and ocean and different week at the beach), or Cynthia Voight’s Dicey’s Song (the characters on the Maryland end of Chesapeake Bay, our family Vacationing on a southerly neck). Every time we travel back to the bay, I start craving one of these books about the same time we cross the bridge tunnel and my husband thinks about ordering local seafood.
A friend recently asked if I had read Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming. I had. Oh, had I. (In middle school, in Atlanta, on late-spring doctor visits for allergy shots, imagining Voight’s New England coast while waiting for the nurse to call me back.) I excitedly tried to say, “Yes, yes, it was amazing,” but the words that came out were—oh emotional me—“It was . . . it was . . . it was formative!”
So it was. So these annual rereads are. A wise person once gave me the advice that, since all the books in the world couldn’t ever be read by one person, what we’d best be advised to do is mostly reread the ones we like best. My husband, an engineer who could do more math half-asleep in the middle of the night than I could ever do with a fresh mind and a calculator in front of me, does not reread. He confesses unapologetically: he reads for plot. Once he knows what has happened, he’s through. But I read for experience. And if it’s an experience I like the first time around, I come back for more. I come back when it’s appropriate, though. Books are, indeed, formative. A book—a great book—is a place that is in my world as much as I am in the world of its characters, unifying my experience with its own feel and yes, its own weather.
Book clubs may do better with committed readers who can step outside of how they feel to get through each text. Bills will get paid because the man I’m married to isn’t over in the corner on his fifth mid-summer read-through of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But that isn’t how I’m formed. The books I love best shift fluidly between my real landscape and the imagined ones within. And so, in a sense, my reading is dictated by the book.
What does this mean for planning to read? Discipline, when I must; I commit to the community that is my book club, and I stretch myself to read J. D. Salinger. If I return to school as-hoped to be—what else?—a librarian, I’ll read the textbooks and articles as I’m told, and Susan Cooper can wait patiently for my next vacation. But when it’s bedtime and I’ve got a few more reading minutes in me yet, I’ll crack open my shabby-edged copy of The Hobbit. It’s coming on fall, after all.
And then I think, with excitement and some trepidation, how I might help develop an imaginative landscape for my daughter—the little girl who fits snugly on my shoulder right now, but who, after not too many seasons, will start to recognize words. Maybe she’ll end up doing math and one-time reads like her dad, and that will be fine. But perhaps some Christmas break she will come to me, fourteen, looking for something to read. I will offer her options, and she will choose. She will reach for Jane Eyre, knowing the time is right. She will feel it both outside and in. Something in the weather will tell her.