"Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."
Henry James was right. Although the illustrious writer didn't say how he liked to spend those afternoons, reading undoubtedly ranked high on his list. What lover of the printed word doesn't dream of languid days, sitting in dappled sunlight, with uninterrupted time to lose oneself in a novel, a biography, a mystery, or a collection of poems?
To an avid reader, summer unofficially begins the first day it's warm enough to read outside. That's also the day to add patio, chaise longue, lemonade, and book to the list of "most beautiful" words.
Every book offers a minivacation of sorts. It turns readers into literary tourists, transporting them to a world - real or fictional - of the author's creation. But which authors and what worlds to choose? That's the question floating through the air this time of year as listmakers compare notes on vacation reading.
One of my favorite ways to assure a varied list comes from a bridal tradition: I like to choose "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."
"Old" can be a classic or a title published a few years ago. "New" carries the advantage of connecting a reader with just-published reviews, author interviews, and the general "buzz" about a title. Books in the "borrowed" category, generously lent by friends, give a hint of the lender's literary taste. "Blue" refers not to a book's mood but to the color of its jacket, sometimes signaling intriguing themes of adventure or power.
In the spirit of increasing the pleasure of summer afternoons, I offer a few titles I've enjoyed recently:
"The Road to Nab End: A Lancashire Childhood," by William Woodruff (New Amsterdam Books, $18.95). A bestseller in England, this beautifully written account of Woodruff's post-World War I boyhood in a mill town in northern England combines a matter-of-fact portrayal of extreme poverty with a resilient spirit and even humor. His grandmother instilled the importance of "larning," and Woodruff went on to become a historian.
"Metro Stop Dostoevsky: Travels in Russian Time," by Ingrid Benis (North Point Press, $24). When Ms. Benis, the daughter of Russian émigrés, returns to St. Petersburg in 1991, she soon finds herself caught up in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her friendship with a Russian woman gives her a perspective on everything from culture and entrepreneurship to the Russians' deep love for home and homeland. Some readers might want to skip the chapters detailing her encounter with a Russian hospital.
"The Siege," by Helen Dunmore (Grove Press, $13). Russia again, this time in a novel. Dunmore's story of an artist named Anna, caught with her father and young brother in the German siege of Leningrad in 1941, is not for the faint of heart. But no history book could bring that period more alive than this account does. Hunger, deprivation, and the long winter take their toll, but courage and the nobility of the human spirit shine through.
"Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," by Claire Tomalin (Knopf, $30). Pepys revealed nine years of his life in his diaries. Now Tomalin fills in the other decades, giving an unequalled view of the man - one of 11 children born to minimally educated parents - and his 17th-century times.
"The Best American Essays" (Houghton Mifflin, $13). This annual collection offers a range of provocative topics and engaging writing. Other categories in the "Best American" series - short stories, magazine articles, travel writing - make equally appealing reading.
Whatever the titles on a book-lover's list, it's time to pull up a comfortable chair, pour a glass of lemonade, and start reading. As Henry James himself might have said, So many titles, so few summer afternoons.