Sina-cism: It’s summer, indulge in a classic read or two

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It’s the height of summer, and if you haven’t already plunged into your summer reading, why not? Do you lack time?

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

Well, probably not. According to the annual Time Use Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average non-institutionalized American age 15 or older in 2014 spent 19 minutes reading on an average day, but 27 minutes playing computer games, 38 minutes socializing, and two hours, 49 minutes watching TV.

I think you can find time to read for an hour a day if you really want to.

And if you’re stuck for suggestions, here are eight books I read in past years between the summer solstice and autumnal equinox. Nothing new. Nothing too violent. Nothing too political. All written in English, so no danger of stumbling over a bad translation.

Mark Twain knew a thing or two about statistics.

Wikimedia Commons / A.F. Bradley

Mark Twain

“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain. Part memoir, part travelogue, partly embellished, this is classic Twain, a leisurely remembrance of things past that twists and turns like the mighty Mississippi itself. A charming and unforgettable view of a vanished era in American history.

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“An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard. Anyone seeking to improve their writing should read Dillard, who taught the craft for more than 20 years at Wesleyan University. Although I didn’t manage to get into her class, I met her a few times, and this work is full of the humor, humanity and extraordinary powers of observation Dillard brings to all her work.

“Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe. Published in 1719, Defoe’s riveting tale essentially created the genre of realistic fiction, and has been beloved by readers worldwide for centuries. It ranks among the most widely translated books of all time, a tribute to Defoe’s readable style.

“A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf” by John Muir. Muir’s work on behalf of preserving the American wilderness is legendary. This early work recounts Muir’s odyssey in post-Civil War America, undertaken just months after he nearly lost an eye in an industrial accident. Valuable for seeing the land as he saw it, and for understanding the course of his life and writing career.

“The Painted Word” by Tom Wolfe. Although much better known for his longer works and role in creating New Journalism, Wolfe’s 1975 book attacking pretty much everything about modern art is both hilarious and states what so many have long suspected about the self-important world of modern art. It can also easily be read at one sitting. All that said, Wolfe is probably wrong about a great many things. But once you’ve read his book, you can decide for yourself.

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“Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck. I first read this in grade school (yes, summer reading) and again several years ago. The charm remains, although the trip seemed shorter. An indelible portrait of America in the middle of the 20th century. Critics today carp that Steinbeck invented dialogue and scenes. Made certain things up. Didn’t exactly rough it. As if any of that matters. Steinbeck is among our greatest authors. That he set off in a camper for a 10,000-mile journey when he was 58 years old – and had exactly nothing left to prove in the world of letters – is enough for me.


“The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Her’s is hardly a household name, and Jewett’s short-story cycle of life on the Maine coast doesn’t rank among the “great books” by most accounts. But it makes for engaging, easy reading that offers considerable insight into the lives of its characters – whose types anyone who spends time in Maine can appreciate. And easy to read in even a few days of vacationing Down East.

“The Outermost House” by Henry Beston. A new favorite. I just read this book, which had been repeatedly recommended to me. Beston’s year living alone on Cape Cod produced a classic, a work as good as Thoreau’s best, and refreshingly free of the self-indulgence that sometimes marks Thoreau. If you can get to the Cape, do so. If you can’t get there as much as you’d like, read Beston. It’s only a couple hundred pages, but you won’t want to rush.

If time and space were not obstacles, I’d suggest Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” but at 700 pages, it would consume too much of your summer. Begin reading it in November to match the tone of its opening chapter.

As for me, I’m eyeing David Halberstam’s “The Summer of ’49.” Baseball. America. Life. And recommended by a friend. That’s enough for me.

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