Decades ago, some dolt at a publishing company decided that summer should be the time for light reading, and for some inexplicable reason, the whole industry went along with this notion. Seriousness—you know, books that matter—was suspended from June until Labor Day. So it has been, so it will be. The problem with this situation is that publishers also seemed to have confused light reading with trivial, forgettable fluff.
It does not have to be that way. Entertaining does not have to be synonymous with trash. All the books on this list say otherwise. Some are serious, some are funny, some will keep you up all night, and all of them are the sort—you have been warned—that if you loan them out, you will never see them again. Is there a better test of a book’s durability?
Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier—Even when you know how it ends, it’s suspenseful. That’s how good Du Maurier is. Her story of the second Mrs. de Winter is so skillfully told that you never think about the skill until the story’s over. It’s tempting to call this a small masterpiece, except there’s nothing small about it. As far as we know, the only people who don’t revere it are the people who haven’t read it.
True Grit, Charles Portis—The author’s best known novel turns 50 this year, and it’s holding up extraordinarily well. Mattie Ross’ account of her 19th century journey to track down the man who killed her father, a quest that, fortunately for us, requires the hiring of Marshall Rooster Cogburn, does not read like a novel. It reads, rather, like a true account unearthed on the Arkansas frontier. But funny. And frightening. A thing of dark and light in perfect balance.
Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse—Jeeves, the gentleman’s gentleman without peer, resigns when his employer, Bertie Wooster, refuses to quit playing the banjolele. Bertie, being the perfect idiot, thinks all will be well and goes off for some peace and quiet in the country. Where, of course, all hell breaks loose, until Jeeves re-appears to restore order to the cosmos. Here, as elsewhere with Wodehouse, you will find yourself laughing and not know exactly why. Or be able to stop. Authors are often called inimitable. Wodehouse truly is.
A Train of Powder, Rebecca West—She was a peerless journalist in almost any situation, but she was a genius as a court reporter. This collection of her trial coverage includes everything from Nuremberg to a lynching case in the American South, which West captures in such compelling and knowing detail that you’d swear she was born in Dixie. Edifying and entertaining—how often do those things go together?
Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey—This collection of portraits gets our vote as the best book of shade throwing ever written, and we mean that as a compliment. Strachey comes not to praise the likes of Florence Nightingale, Gordon of Khartoum, and assorted other 19th century notables but to destroy these pompous jerks and salt the ground with their remains. When he’s done, truly, there’s not much left of his victims save now permanently soiled reputations. If there was a single needle that deflated Victorianism, this was it.
Red Dragon, Thomas Harris—OK, The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ most famous novel, but this one’s better. Dr. Lecter is here, too, but in a supporting role. From the killer’s dragon tattoo to the chillingly ingenious method through which he picks his victims, Harris reveals an ability to terrify that he would never entirely top.
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson—OK, any Atkinson novel or story collection will do. You can’t go wrong. She’s like Du Maurier, a truly great artist who’s so entertaining that you forget all about stuffy things like great art. This story, about a woman trying to kill Hitler—again and again and again, with different outcomes every time (except, of course, that the murder plot never works)—is the author’s most devious and devilish book, and despite its narrative trickiness, her most heartfelt.
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson—relegated to the kids’ shelf, but why? It begins a little slowly but when Long John Silver appears (Stevenson, who had a genius for description, tells us that, besides the peg leg, Silver “was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham—plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling”), things start to move with such alacrity that you can kiss bedtime goodbye. The best pirate novel ever.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry—It’s long. It has cows in it. No matter. McMurtry’s tale of an epic trail drive re-invented the western novel and gave us Gus McCrae, one of the great characters in American literature and a man you’re not embarrassed to call a hero. When you’re done, you’ll wish it were twice as long.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame—Another one that’s wasted on the young (as was childhood, per George Bernard Shaw). Mole, badger, toad—animals in waistcoats and automobiles. It sounds impossibly twee, but if you could capture the essence of a perfect summer afternoon, it would be this book. Hammock and lemonade optional but preferred.
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe—The test pilots and early astronauts were the ultimate squares, but in Wolfe’s eyes, they were the ultimate hipsters—laconic, heedlessly brave, a small cadre that had no equals. With an unequalled eye for detail (for years, hell, even now, every commercial airline pilot mimicked Chuck Yeager’s laidback West Virginia holler drawl, and it took Wolfe to point that out), the late father of new journalism takes a familiar narrative and makes it altogether fresh. This is where cynicism goes to die.
The Santa Claus Bank Robbery, A.C. Greene—We know there is no real justice in the world, because this true-crime tale of a robbery that goes horribly wrong is not as famous as, say, In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song. Premise: a bunch of hard-up Texas farmers don Santa Claus masks and rob a Depression-era bank. The botched robbery, though, is only the beginning. Because then things go spectacularly off the rails. Of the short list of books we did not so much read as devour, this one tops the lot.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion—An early collection of Didion’s non-fiction essays and reporting, it remains as fresh as the day it was published. A woman without a sentimental bone in her body and a prose style like dry ice, Didion casts an unblinking eye on the U.S. in general and California specifically in this collective portrait of the ’60s, nailing everything from Howard Hughes to Haight-Ashbury. There was no one like Didion before Didion. But after this book appeared, she just seemed inevitable.
The Third Man, Graham Greene—Here’s a true oddity: Greene wrote the screenplay for the Carol Reed film and then wrote the novel. But, while it’s impossible not to think of Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Alida Valli while you read, the book is somehow different—more melancholy, more poetic. It’s not like reading a movie, in other words. But as a story, it’s one of Greene’s best—and he thought up some good ones.
The Real Cool Killers, Chester Himes—Was Himes America’s greatest crime novelist? The more we read, the more we think so. He was certainly the funniest, although the humor is decidedly grim. Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, soiled but somehow upright cops in Harlem, are in fine form here in a plot that defies summation. Himes was not much for heroes—in his world, everyone was compromised somehow—but his portrait of Harlem’s underbelly is ruthlessly convincing, and his dark take on American society, written half a century ago, looks more durable by the day.