Now that it’s finals week, we’re on the brink of summertime. This is the time when celebrities reveal their summer reading lists — an annual opportunity for political figures, actors, writers or people from other echelons of fame to exhibit their literary taste.
Lists can make good suggestions, but they tend to be limited to certain kinds of literature and feature a particular variety of novels and a select handful of memoirs. Instead of adhering to a prewritten list this summer, my recommendation is to choose something unexpected to read, completely out of the ordinary range of recommended reading selections.
Rather than preparing a reading list this summer, try creating the list as you go. Perhaps an intriguing novel gestures toward a historical moment, which is linked with some other writer or literary work. Such a chain produces a more personalized list, more ideally suited to one’s individual interests.
Summer is a great time for science-fiction fans to pull some nonfiction off the library shelves or for poetry geeks to pick up a dystopian novel. Without required readings, summer offers a chance to step out of your comfort zone in making book selections.
On reading lists, certain genres — nonfiction, in particular — tend to be underappreciated and underrepresented. Nonfiction has a reputation for being dry and scholarly, which perpetuates the myth that nonfiction can’t make a great beach read.
Sometimes fact turns out to be even more improbable than fiction. As the saying goes, there are some things that you just can’t make up, like the fact that John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in the White House or the time when Ernest Hemingway’s brother Leicester founded his own island nation on a raft in the Caribbean and dubbed it New Atlantis.
Random nonfiction works about the history of something obscure are unlikely to reach celebrity book lists anytime soon, yet they have can have real literary merit, both because they’re true and because they’re engaging to read.
The implicit idea behind celebrity summer reading lists is a desire to share something with your most admired celebrities and follow their tastes.
After all, celebrity reading lists are, in part, a public relations strategy. They tend to showcase bestsellers, including books that contribute to a certain image or that center on a particular popular topic. Bestsellers generally receive high acclaim, but lesser-known works can be equally praiseworthy even if they’re unlikely to earn a place on such a list.
An obscure work about the history of the potato doesn’t look great as part of a public relations strategy, but its lack of sexy shelf appeal doesn’t diminish the book’s potential to interest and engage readers.
It’s best to envision literature as a network of interconnected ideas, since it’s more natural to see relationships between works than it is to follow prescribed reading lists. Instead of making a reading list this summer or borrowing one from a celebrity, let the list make itself.
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