Simply the best

So I do occasionally dip into something other than deathless classics, and I picked up a copy of Real Simple magazine the last time I was at the grocery store. This month’s issue had a short article on “Best Summer Books.” This is something lots of magazines do in May or June, gearing up for a little beach reading, but Real Simple did theirs with a twist this time: they asked ten top-selling authors, men and women, to give their recommendations in four categories: the best one-day reads, the best books for a long weekend, the best books to savor all summer, and the best books to dip into and out of.  

The recommendations were sometimes surprising and sometimes predictable, but I have plenty on my TBR list, thank you very much. It was less the recommendations themselves that interested me than the idea for the article: what do writers read? Everyone says that if you want to write well, you must read well, wisely, and widely; what’s on the list of the darlings of the NYT Bestsellers List? 

The biggest surprise, for me, was Augusten Burroughs. I’ve read two of his memoirs: Dry and Running With Scissors. Both left me equally convinced that he is a thoroughly unpleasant person, self-involved, ungrateful, arrogant, unaware of the feelings of others, prone to exaggeration for comic effect even at the expense of a precious relationship. I would never invite him to dinner (one of my favorite criteria for authors, and one of the easiest: Voltaire, to dinner; Rousseau, never. Neither Coleridge nor Keats, but Charles Lamb any time. And so on. But I digress.) So I don’t like Burroughs. But I love his taste in books. He recommends Carson McCullers, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Tillie Olsen, Emily Dickinson: some of the great American authors who have shaped our language and our imagery. It makes me respect him more as an author to see what he reads and what he wants others to read.

By contrast, Janet Evanovich recommends two detective novels, some Little Golden Books, and Disney Princess the Ultimate Sticker Book. Oh, Janet. Really? You have a national platform to recommend your delicious all-time favorites, and that’s what you do with it? I’ve got nothing against the Pokey Little Puppy, but come on.

All this left me wondering what I would recommend for the same categories. For a one-day read: any of Laurie Colwin’s novels, most of which hover around 200 pages and are some of the most wonderful, funny, true, bittersweet stuff I’ve read in a long time. Best book for a long weekend: maybe Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens, or perhaps Possession, by A.S. Byatt, depending on whether you were in the mood for something more modern or something a little more 19th-century. Books to savor all summer: I never think you can go wrong sailing with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s superb series, but I may tackle War and Peace, myself, since I haven’t read it yet. And books to dip in and out of: my first thought was poetry, but I changed my mind and I will recommend M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating. Every essay is a joy, even if it’s only on scrambled eggs.

And what about you? What are your recommendations?

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