Opinion

How summer reading flipped me from my hammock and changed my life

I'll read this summer for moments of revelation. The summer before college, I confirmed my major by reading Russell Baker's "Growing up." Later, Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," told me that a wise life could be made beyond the Washington Beltway.

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Summer is a time when we often seek out books that will charm or entertain us – something sunny to be savored from a hammock or beach chair.

But can summer reading touch us more deeply, changing us in ways that linger long after vacation season is over?

That question came to mind the other day when I retrieved from my shelf a copy of "Growing Up," the celebrated childhood memoir by retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker.

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Published in 1982, Mr. Baker's book first fell into my hands during my summer between high school and college. I'd registered as a journalism major, although I'd become aware of the pecking order that usually separated newspaper folk from those writers who were regarded as real men and women of letters.

In "Growing Up," the unrepentant newshound Baker achieved a Proustian accomplishment, enthralling me and thousands of other readers with flawless prose that elegantly evoked his past. "Growing Up" taught me that journalists could – and should – aspire to the highest standards of expression, an ideal I've struggled to meet ever since.

Baker's book moved me so strongly that I quickly mailed a copy to my best friend, assured that she'd be altered as indelibly as I was. But aside from polite thanks, she never mentioned Baker's memoir again, which taught me another important lesson.

The love of a book, like any great romance, depends on a peculiar chemistry between souls that's hard to quantify and even harder to predict. That's the essential mystery of reading, that we never quite know when the magic will strike.

Fetching Baker's book from the shelf the other day, I thought of other summer books that had shaken me awake to some new and inescapable reality.

Beyond beach reads

After I read it during a summer road trip, Walker Percy's "Lost in The Cosmos" – a philosophical rumination that wryly mimics a self-help book – dispelled the smug certitude I'd cultivated as a 20-year-old, revealing a world so complex that I'm still trying to figure it out.

Inspired to climb for a while in the branches of Mr. Percy's family tree, I spent a subsequent summer in the pages of "Lanterns on the Levee," the 1941 memoir penned by Percy's planter cousin and primary guardian, William Alexander Percy. The elder Percy, who had been not only a poet but a farmer, lawyer, soldier, and civic leader, usefully reminded me that a life of literature and a life of action were not mutually exclusive.

His patronizing passages about African-Americans also taught me that a writer, like any human being, could be very wise about many things, but also wrongheaded about others.

In the summer of 1984, while serving a Capitol Hill internship that was meant to make me a political insider, I caught a glimpse of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" in a bookstore near the Washington Mall and discovered an alternate path.

If Mr. Thoreau could find wisdom so far from the corridors of culture and power, then maybe my plans for a congressional career needed rethinking. Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," a memoir of her Mississippi childhood that I read the same summer, only affirmed my growing sense that a wise life could be made beyond the Washington Beltway.

I don't know if any of the books I'll read this summer will mark me so permanently, but I've learned not to be surprised by a sea change in my senses when I crack open a new volume.

I'll read this summer for the same reason I always do – for those small moments of revelation in which I open a book and find my life changed forever.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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