Be honest: How many books did you actually read this summer?
My guilty secret: Even though my life is largely devoted to books, somehow I only managed to read one book for pleasure this summer.
Because confession is good for the soul, maybe it’s time for me to publicly acknowledge a minor scandal in my reading life. As Labor Day brings the unofficial end of summer, a season supposedly devoted to reading for fun, I have finished reading one – just one – book for pleasure.
That’s a shameful turn of events for a man who makes part of his living by writing about books, always urging everyone else to read, read, read. But like the proverbial cobbler who has no shoes, those of us in this line of work are often so busy reading for assignments that we rarely have time to read just for the heck of it.
We often enjoy the stuff we read for a byline, and this summer brought plenty of treats for literary journalists. Because I was asked to review it, I tackled Ann Patty’s “Living with a Dead Language,” her lively account of learning Latin in late middle age. I also reviewed “On Trails,” Robert Moor’s fascinating cultural history of walking paths, and “Everything Explained That Is Explainable,” Denis Boyles’ colorful chronicle of how the legendary 11th edition of the Encylopædia Britannica came to be. For other writing projects, I revisited the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and the political journalism of H.L. Mencken. These were all texts that, in other circumstances, I might have picked up on a whim. But anything read on deadline can’t strictly be counted as a summer indulgence.
Although I finished only one book for fun this summer, I dipped into others here and there, and this kind of browsing can be a lot of fun, too – like chatting with a roomful of really smart people at a cocktail party. I revisited “Peripheral Visions” and “Night Lights,” two vintage essay collections by Phyllis Theroux on parenting, and skimmed “Utopia Drive,” Erik Reece’s interesting survey of America’s long-running experiments with “perfect” communities. As I mentioned in an earlier “Chapter & Verse” blog, I reread some of “Robinson Crusoe,” a summer tradition since childhood.
But the only book I finished this summer that was undertaken for me and me alone was “The Mist in the Mirror,” a ghost story by Susan Hill, the British writer best known for her spine-tingling “The Woman in Black.”
I got a paperback copy of “The Mist in the Mirror” two summers ago, starting it on successive beach vacations before the return to work banished the book to an end table, unfinished. For this year’s trip to the beach, I decided I’d start the novel from scratch – and this time, work my way to the last page. A sunny, summer coastal destination might seem an unlikely setting to settle in with a ghost story, but my vacation spot on the Gulf Coast of Alabama proved perfect. The condo where I stayed had an eccentric cooling system that made the den downright arctic, so I snuggled under a blanket, the mood as wintry as Hill’s narrative of an Englishman encountering a strange spirit over yuletide. A couple of rainy afternoons complemented the effect, too.
I must say that “The Mist in the Mirror” isn’t Hill’s best book. The ending doesn’t satisfy, leaving lots of loose ends, and the plot depends on the time-honored convention of a hero who improbably insists on entering dark places alone. But Hill is a great scene-setter, and it was liberating to read something that didn’t have to be the best thing I’d ever read. What I’ll remember most of all about the book isn’t the book itself, but the experience of reading it – those pleasant hours in a beach house, nestled with a piece of fiction and free from anything else to do.
What I’m learning about summer reading is that the quality of the encounter is perhaps more important than the quantity of reading that we do. So I’ll look toward fall now, and won’t feel too badly if I read just one more book for fun by Christmas.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”