Tips for Reading in the Sun

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READING IN THE SUN. It sounds easy, but you probably need advice.

As this post goes live, I am reading in the sun. Fridays in the summer I go to the beach. El Porto, at the northern tip of Manhattan Beach. I walk when I get there, and I read. I’m a reading expert. Not the kind that helps kids learn how to read, but the kind that just reads a lot. Like, a lot. I don’t have the TV-watching knack (but I remember the passage from Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television that offers some ideas about what it is about the medium that erects a sort of wall of boredom in front of me), and in addition to recreational reading, I read a lot for work. Which has mostly been as an editor; now I’m also an anthologist.

In the summer, at beaches and parks, even amateurs get into the reading act. Because for many, summer  a delicious season of reading exactly what you want, when you want.

For some, there’s pleasure in using these blissfully long days to finish a really long book, wallowing in prose by authors as disparate as Cervantes, Tolstoy, Auel and Knausgaard. (I have never done this myself. I don’t do long.)

For some, there’s a weird thrill in doing “catch-up” reading—you know, finally going down the stack of trade journals and books by people you know, one by one. (I have definitely done this and it’s amazingly fun. Reading up on your field or your friends sometimes reminds you why they’re your field or your friends.)

For others, vacation reading mode is like the road-trip diet—guilty pleasures are not only permissible, but at the top of the menu. (I spent one glorious week’s vacation as a preteen at my Aunt Betty’s house, who let me read my way through her library of Readers’ Digest Condensed books. Racing through a bunch of adult bestsellers each day was my equivalent of a bottomless bag of potato chips.)

As a uni-seasonal reader-in-the-sun (because I live in LA) and former travel writer/vacation expert, I’d like to share some hot tips for reading in the sun.

THE TIPS

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Brown Pelican on beach. Photograph by Hartmut Walter, whose photo essay, “The Wilds Bird of L.A.” will appear in the upcoming Paperback L.A. Book 2, A Casual Anthology.

The place for summer reading— balcony, patio, tree house, campground, beach blanket, motel poolside—is outdoors, in the sun (with appropriate shade).
Situate yourself so that when you raise your eyes from the page, you can see the horizon, or a cloud or a tree. Reading at your desk is not reading in the sun, even if your desk is outdoors. We’re talking recreation.

Don’t do it on your phone, tablet or LCD-display e-reader.
Washed-out screen. Glare. Ouch. But e-ink display readers can be your beach buddy.

Summer begins with nature writing.
Nature writing often gets forgotten in our busy, busy world. The 2011 anthology The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. Savoy, is a good starting point this year: a generous two-dozen selections include discussions of what we even mean by nature writing. Meanwhile, Thoreau’s Maine Woods transports this West Coast reader back through the centuries every time.

Did I say anthology?
As the editor of FOUR volumes in an anthology series being published over two years, let me recommend the form. Readers of Paperback L.A. Book 1, A Casual Anthology tell me they have found selections that have spurred them to buy the books excerpted because they now want to read the whole thing.

For a memorable summer, mix it up.
We all have our go-to genres—mystery, fantasy, romance, pulp. To give your summer memories some definition, change up your reading list. Think of it as cross-training for the soul. Alternate between fiction and nonfiction all summer. First a novel or book of short stories. Then a biography or cookbook or art manifesto. Then fiction again. Have a stack of titles waiting or download as needed. You’ll find the titles reflecting and affecting your summer life—maybe you pick up Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring after a day at the museum, or maybe Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars sends you out to look at the stars.

Speaking of short stories, now is the time.
Maybe someone gave you a collection for Christmas or you picked up an anthology of stories by queer writers and/or moms and you never get to it because you have bigger things to read. Not more important. Perfect. You have a day of leisure but reading’s not the only thing you want to do while you’re at the park. One a day? One a week?

If you only have ten minutes on the patio each day, spend it with a friend.
We’re not all on vacation from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but just as a daily walk can give shape to your season, a daily dip into one writer’s mind offers a kind of companionship. Pick a single book to read a small portion of each day and the cumulative effect will be a gentle constant, your inner companion, a voice you hear in your mind as you go about your life. Try reading somebody’s “selected letters”—Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Seneca? Bit by bit, your world will be colored by theirs. Or step for 10 minutes into someone else’s life by reading their diaries or journals. You’ll soon be “up betimes and to the office” with Samuel Pepys in 17th-century London or dreaming of a bear’s “furry death hug” with Isabella Bird in the Rocky Mountains.

Indulge yourself. Spend the longest day of the year reading a book in one sitting.

Or I-Ching your way into a random exploration.
I found some of my now-favorite authors and books one summer when I read 26 books in a sequence designed to stop myself dithering about what fiction to select. (I was spending all my time reading reviews.) I just decided to pick books alphabetically by author’s last or family name. I allowed myself re-reads as well as first-time reads, so I felt some safety with A (Austen), B (Bellows) and C (Conrad). Then I abandoned caution and simply went to the bookstore and selected a book by Dai Sijie, which turned out to be the memorable Balzac and the Little Chinese Princess. I continued on through the alphabet, feeling remarkably free from having to decide.Next, I might try picking books by moving from country to country based on setting or author’s nationality.

Support abundant reality and vicarious experience.
Playwright Luis Valdez spoke of his hometown library in rural California as his “only link to the outside world” and author Rita Mae Brown says, “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.” They’re just a few of the thousands of adults who credit their library with opening up their world. So, let your kids check out all books as they can carry this summer—that array of possibilities is more than a metaphor.

Shop their shelves.
Motels and inns often keep a shelf in the lobby of books that guests have left behind. Non-chain coffee house decor includes bookcases stocked by customers who read and recycle.  And libraries have their donated book sales. The latter is where I found a marvelous summer read last year, Pictures from an Expedition, by Diane Smith, a novel about a paleontological expedition in Montana that’s informed by historic events in the months before the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Shop your shelves.
If you’re into summer projects, there’s no better time for setting up a “Little Free Library” in your yard or neighborhood and stock it with books you’d like to share. A two-year-old of my acquaintance walks with her mom each week to one of these house-shaped cabinets on a pole a few blocks from her home. She takes one book and leaves one book, in keeping with the movement’s philosophy. As far as she’s concerned, this little cabinet is “the library” and each visit brings her joy.

© copyright Susan LaTempa 2018. This essay first appeared in a slightly different form on May 24, 2018


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