Summer reading: the ultimate competitive sport of the middle class

Poolside pretention. EPSTOCK/Shutterstock.com

It’s the summer holidays – finally we have the chance to relax on the sun lounger and escape into a good book. This is the one time of the year when we can read at our leisure, undisturbed by colleagues and urgent deadlines, enjoying a nice glass of something chilled.

Except that life is never really quite that simple, particularly for the time-poor, information-sated bourgeois professional on a break. July and August may offer a brief respite from the cut and thrust of working life, but questions will be asked when you return to the daily grind – just what did you read during your stay in Tuscany/Suffolk/the Dordogne? Are you au fait with the Bailey’s shortlist? Have you grappled with Knausgaard? And where are you at with economics, psychology and popular science? There may be a respite from work-related reading, but not from the demands of dinner parties yet to come.

So how should we make our choice? Attempting this can mean a substantial investment of time in itself. Scrolling through the culture sections of the quality news sites is daunting – the great and the good are all at it, reading away, brains whirring as their bodies soak up the heat. The political biographers are absorbing the sexy new political biographies, the historians are perusing historical tomes bursting with on-trend opinions, while the TV chefs are gobbling up sumptuous recipe books.

Where to start … Transformer18/flickr, CC BY

Everyone is delighted by the work of their rivals, everyone is excited by the prospect of turning to the first page. No one seems to be thinking: oh God, not another one. Apparently no one is going into bookshops and having a funny turn. (Nick Hornby is an exception to the rule. In his nonfiction book Stuff I’ve Been Reading he confesses to feeling depressed by the prodigious output of his brother-in-law.)

Indeed, assembling your summer book pile can feel like a mission to self-improve: along with the beach-ready body comes the book-ready brain. In the Observer alone, 54 writers and cultural commentators from Jeremy Paxman to Shami Chakrabarti share their holiday reading plans – more than 150 titles appear on their collective wish-list. The Italian writer Elena Ferrante is the most frequently cited contemporary author, while several of the busy pundits are determined to tackle the magisterial works of Tolstoy and Flaubert.

But the pressure to become acquainted with the latest must-read volume or to take on a cultural monolith like Anna Karenina can itself be counterproductive. We are awash with words, in danger of being swept away by a tsunami of information, both digital and in paper form. According to the International Publishers Association UK, more than 184,000 new books were published in 2013, and more books are published per hour, per inhabitant, than in any country in the world. It’s increasingly difficult to maintain focus on the books that really interest us, and to give them the attention they deserve.

In that sense Helen Dunmore’s recommendation – the classic Ladybird book What to Look For in Summer – is more appealing than some of the more rigorous choices. The invitation to look around and appreciate the sights and smells of summer is enticing.

Escapist bliss. Romiana Lee/Shutterstock.com

But surely one of the great pleasures of holiday reading is the escapist one of entering a different world? There’s much to be gained from reading what we love, and letting go of the compulsion to read the latest prize-winning or media-friendly book. Some of the happiest days of my childhood were spent reading E Nesbitt’s magical stories in my grandmother’s garden, sitting under a sunshade eating peppermint creams. There was no sense that such books were “good for me”. They offered sheer enjoyment.

We can rediscover such pleasures as adults. On one Lake District holiday with my partner, we both tussled over our sole copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, pushing our relationship to the limits. (He, having brought the book with him, felt that he had priority access to it, I begged to differ.) Both of us took it in turns to stay up all night to finish it, collapsing exhausted as the sun rose.

Although the denouement has its anticlimactic element, as such denouements often do, the obsessive desire to unravel the novel’s secret has stayed with me vividly, as has the glossily queasy atmosphere that Tartt evokes. Of course, I would have enjoyed the novel had I read it in snatched moments over several weeks, but I wouldn’t have been able to lose myself in the story so completely. Engaging with the imagination of another person with such single-minded passion can sustain you for a lifetime.

Here’s to summer reading that really is a holiday – from our incessant desire to compete.