Barack Obama is a lucky man. For the first time since becoming president, he’s made it through the summer without having his choice of beach reads revealed for everyone to paw at. If only the rest of us could be so fortunate.
The tyranny of the summer reading list is a common madness. Every year it leads to the same failed romance. A hopeful first flirtation, stolen moments on the sofa, then the inevitable disintegration into broken promises and neglect. Now September is here and with it the guilt. Another batch of books unread. Another set of good intentions wrecked.
Bookworms dream of the summer as a halcyon period of self-improvement. Surely, we think, this will be the August that we make it through every word Robert Caro has written on Lyndon Johnson, the entire New York Times bestseller list and the latest Hilary Mantel. Come June, Amazon packages start piling in. Soon that extra pair of sandals in the suitcase has been discarded in favour of the collected letters of Martha Gellhorn. Then it’s autumn and we’re lugging the whole lot back again and wishing we’d invested in a Kindle after all. Although ebook users actually have it worse. The thing just sits there, blinking smugly and boasting an unlimited capacity that your brain can never match.
Human nature just can’t resist the pressure to tick things off a list. And there are so many of them available. “What I’ll be reading on the beach” round-ups flood the papers from late spring, stoking our fears that everyone else is on to something we’re missing. As the publishing industry tries to buck up sales in a traditionally slow season, endless discount offers seduce us into buying books we are never going to open.
Our inner students are partly to blame. In those long-lost holidays of reading assignments, travelling with a mobile library felt necessary as well as noble. I once managed to take six Henry James classics on holiday, causing my suitcase to lose a wheel before it got to the airport. But in adulthood, following reading lists is just an intellectual security blanket.
A new book on an empty day is one of life’s great pleasures: it’s the five left in the suitcase that are the nightmare. Summer teaches us the folly of trying to plan our pursuits too carefully. You’ll never bring enough socks and you’ll always have too many 600-page tomes. Instead, it is the book pilfered from a cousin, found in the library of a hostel or bought on a whim at the train station that we really enjoy. Another holidaymaker’s abandoned burden could be your treasure.
The social pressure to have the best beach-read comes from improbable places. JPMorgan Private Bank gives its clients a carefully calibrated list each summer. This year’s privileged can thumb through Passion & Purpose, stories from young MBAs (or precisely what you don’t need during 10 days away from the office), and a Jubilee biography of the Queen – useful only for schmoozing at the Garden Party. Tory MP Keith Simpson produces a parliamentary reading list each summer: Churchill, wonkery and some light political scandal.
The worst thing about all of this is that it turns books into a status update: allowing others to parse your character from the nearest deckchair. Just ask Obama. Over the past few years, his summer reads have met with criticism on all sides. Did his choice of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom imply he thought America was falling apart? Does that novel featuring abandoned children suggest hidden father issues? Why is he reading anything but briefing papers in the first place? No wonder that this year he kept his selection quiet. As for Malia and Sasha, the press has noted a parental taste for good, all-American classics. Even the GOP can’t find much to criticise in past purchases of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Red Pony.
We should throw off these shackles. To read for pleasure is to know the thrill of the treasure-hunter. This summer in a rented cottage in the Hebrides, the mouldering bookshelf contained the same eclectic collection it has done for decades. I could have brushed up my knowledge of vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan with a spot of his icon Ayn Rand (a 70s edition of The Fountainhead complete with pneumatic blonde cover girl). Or dived into a trashy romance, some flower identification manuals or a tattered John le Carré. All seemed more appealing than the highly recommended editions I’d brought from London.
Ultimately, it was eight damp volumes dating from 1906 that chained me to the sofa. The Harmsworth Self-Educator boasts of being “a golden key to success in life” with a “realm… as wide as the world”. It certainly contained everything that a summer dilettante needed: how to tune a piano, an explanation of algebraic surds and a critique of Russian tyranny. Such enticing titles as “Measles as a national disaster” and (usefully) “Should an editor lose his temper?” beckoned. It held, in short, the joy of discovery that was missing from everything I felt I should be reading.
News on the latest autumn blockbusters and Christmas stocking fillers is already filtering through. Ignore the noise and go with your gut. Those 7,000-plus Self-Educator pages will still be on the Scottish shelf next summer – and this time I’m going to read all of them.
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine.