My Summer 2019 Reading List — 10 Books to Dive Into
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Books in my Life
Reading has always played a huge part in my life – that much is obvious from the degree I’ve just finished in English Literature. For the past four years I’ve read at least one or two books a week, and that’s not even counting academic journals and research material. I’ve delved into all sorts of genres and styles, from Old English epic poems, to twentieth century American short stories, to non-fiction memoirs. I’ve loved having the chance to read outside of my comfort zone and be introduced to characters and places that I might have otherwise overlooked.
The value of a broad literary education came with a price, one that I was happy to trade off but that had an effect on me nonetheless: for the past four years I’ve had very little time to read things I have actually chosen for myself. I haven’t had much of a chance to get lost in a book just for the pleasure of it, without having to think analytically or make notes throughout the process.
Getting back on track
Over the last few summers, despite having the freedom to choose my reading list once again when the semester wound up, I found myself struggling to pick up my reading habit again. Every time I did make time for reading, I found it difficult to focus, often sticking a bookmark in after the first few chapters and forgetting about the book completely for a couple of weeks.
Distracted, I looked for easy entertainment, racking up my YouTube watch history and scrolling through immaculately presented Bookstagram accounts, adding pictures of books I wanted to read to a collection. They stayed there indefinitely, and I never took any steps to actually purchasing them.
This summer, faced for the first time in years with the unfamiliar prospect of no strictly set reading list waiting for me on the horizon, I decided to pick up reading for pleasure once again. I wanted to feel about reading the way I did before I started college, to recreate the hazy summer afternoons I spent lying on a picnic blanket in the garden, rereading The Princess Diaries one book a day, only stopping every few hours to adjust my blanket so it would always stay in the warm, slanting sunshine.
Weeks of endless Irish rain may have trampled on that particular fantasy this June, but I am still determined to feel as warm and engaged in my reading material this summer as I would be in tropical poolside heat.
Reading list for this summer
I didn’t set any ground rules for this summer’s reading list, allowing myself to experiment with whatever feels right in the moment. The key is not to read high-brow, ambitious classics all summer, but instead to build a solid reading habit: to engage my mind, to feel for new characters, and to get hooked on a good plotline once again.
The following list of titles is not exhaustive: I have already started – or finished – some of them, and might find myself removing others altogether. I will definitely add more to the list as I go along – the summer is long and full of promise. You might notice the range of topics and genres included: I tried to keep it varied and inspiring, so that even when one book isn’t working out for me, I know the next one will be entirely different.
Hopefully you’ll find a couple of books among my picks to add to your TBR list this summer. Do let me know if you end up loving any of them!
So, without further rambling, here is my reading list for summer 2019:
1. Normal People — Sally Rooney
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Normal People was a natural choice for me. I can’t even count how many times it was recommended to me over the last few months by all kinds of people in my life: college professors, librarians, bookstagrammers from all corners of the world, podcast hosts I admire, and even the manager at the coffee shop I worked in. This was largely due to the fact that the story takes place at my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, where Rooney herself also studied English Literature.
There seems to be a strange fondness for successful people who have been in your exact position at one point or another: a comforting reassurance that it’s possible to make it, that the distant dreams you’ve tucked away at the back of your mind – to someday publish a book, to work at and maybe even edit a literary magazine, to be able to call yourself an author – are all possible, and not so ridiculously unreachable after all.
I spent weeks at the end of the semester itching to get my hands on this book, promising it to myself as a post-exam reward, hoping that it would ease me into a summer of reading.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Despite the high praise I heard about Normal People before I picked it up from the library and devoured it in two sittings, I still found myself unprepared for its emotional complexity, its unapologetic honesty, the pared back beauty of its prose, and the sensitive depth of its characters. The story of Marianne and Connell completely captivated me, and I found myself genuinely invested in the lives it observed, for the first time in what seemed like forever. I almost felt a debt of gratitude to Sally Rooney for portraying so accurately and delicately how class difference, shame, and power dynamics show themselves in micro-environments like Trinity College or a small rural town in County Sligo. I loved the author’s honesty in depicting the realities of the world I have come to both love and hate while growing up in Dublin.
The first night after I got my hands on it, I read Normal People until the sun started rising, not even noticing the hours passing by. The next day, after I finished it, it sent my mind swirling in a frenzy, casting an emotional weight on my thoughts for the rest of the evening.
These for me are marks of a good book, one that is especially appropriate for this reading list, as I try to engage with the written word once again. Let me officially join the long list of people recommending Normal People this summer.
2. Notes on a Nervous Planet — Matt Haig
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
One of the only books I finished last summer, while in a similarly unfocused and reading material saturated mindset, was Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time. I didn’t think it was the best book ever written, and I did find its premise a little bit cliché (though I did grow up reading Twilight and Michael Scott’s series The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel), but all that aside, I found How to Stop Time charming, intelligent, and entirely unputdownable.
This year, while picking up the aforementioned Normal People from the library counter, I spotted Haig’s newer little book displayed in the ‘new releases’ section, and loaned it out before even fully reading the blurb.
I was immediately drawn to the idea of a book of “notes” – scattered pieces of thought centred around characteristically modern anxieties, forming a unit described by bestselling author of This Is Going To Hurt, Adam Kay, as “the definitive user manual for your own head.” Notes on a Nervous Planet is honest, conversationally accessible, and poignant at its best moments. In its structure it is a book of its time, divided into digestible parts that can be turned to as needed, like medicine to the anxieties of social media and the unrelenting tempo of modern life.
Some parts were a little slow to get through, some felt stretched out or redundant – but being “notes,” I was inclined to accept them that way. Notes on a Nervous Planet feels a little like a work unfinished, a healthy pause for reflection in the middle of a hectic day.
3. Everything I Know About Love — Dolly Alderton
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
Everything I Know About Love, the debut memoir by British journalist Dolly Alderton, was another highly anticipated read for me, and was one of the first books I got my hands on as soon as exams were behind me. I had seen the book pop up on social media for months, and my excitement about reading it culminated in my discovery of The High Low, a pop culture podcast hosted by Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton herself. Realising how funny, intelligent, and full of stories Alderton is, I promptly stalked her Instagram account for a couple of days before finally giving in and ordering the book from my local library. I certainly have no regrets about it.
Everything I Know About Love is exactly what I would consider a summer read – it is light and playful, laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus funny, but also full of emotion. It did feel a bit self-indulgent at times, and has the air of privilege, but I can’t really blame a memoir for a little self-indulgence. What mattered to me was that it awoke in me the same feelings I had when I was reading Louise Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, as if Dolly Alderton herself was a grown-up Georgia, writing about her version of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, complete with a heart-warming dose of female friendships, reckless exploits, and self-acceptance. All in all, a wonderful addition to the summer reading list.
4. Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Rounding off the already-read section of this reading list is Celeste Ng’s wonderful book, Little Fires Everywhere. I first heard about it on the aforementioned The High Low, and was intrigued by the exploration of class and family dynamics described by the podcast hosts.
I’ve had a fascination with American suburbia ever since I read Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Something about the idea of a practically homogenous community, largely cut off from the rest of the urban landscape, striving for perfection and seeking self-validation by outperforming their neighbours, seems not only like a mundane and unexciting way of life, but also an eerily insidious one.
Little Fires Everywhere does not present an insidious suburban community, though it does also feature a photographer as a central character; an artistic newcomer entering the scene to capture and freeze it in time, to reflect reality in her lens and make a lasting impression on the community. The novel offers up a world that, upon first glance, seems picture-perfect: Shaker Heights is progressive and perfected, its residents wealthy and educated, its houses painted according to a strict colour scheme. As expected from a suburban microenvironment, though, its façades conceal the subtle complexities of middle class life, the strains of family dynamics, and the pressure of societal expectations.
Celeste Ng sets a slow tempo for her story, unwinding the characters’ secrets and presenting readers with ethical dilemmas that offer no clear answers (but give pleasure to philosophy enthusiasts like myself). Her exploration of motherhood throughout various storylines is delicate and empathetic, and the theme of racial prejudice is similarly skilfully handled.
I read Little Fires Everywhere in coffee shops and on buses: it was a slow burner at first, but it seemed to open up before me, gathering speed as its mysteries unravelled. It filled me with nostalgia for summer days spent in almost-suburban childhood homes, of going around to friends’ houses to watch TV, and cycling around the car park on warm evenings. In short, the perfect formula for a summer reading list.
5. Feel Free — Zadie Smith
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
In 2019 I truly explored the essay for, having only dabbled in reading essays before. During my last semester in college, I took a class in American Essays, reading works by authors as diverse as Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Joan Didion, and Maggie Nelson. The module covered a whole range of American essay writing over time, mapping the progression of the form and its scope for political as well as personal expression. I loved every single class, and vowed to make time for reading essays in my spare time, as well as trying my hand at writing some of my own.
In the last few years, the essay has had a bit of a renaissance – essay collections have risen to the bestseller ranks in the charts, and one name that features prominently on all of them is Zadie Smith.
I’ve been meaning to read Zadie Smith’s fiction for years, and her novel White Teeth should really have its own place here on this list – but for now, I’ve decided to set my energy on reading her 2018 essay collection, Feel Free. I have already peeked at some of the essays held within the beautiful volume, and am excited to keep up with some literary journalism while I’m no longer in a literature setting five days of the week. I don’t believe it will be an easy read, but when the moment is right for some intellectual stimulation, this book will be my companion this summer.
6. Play it as it Lays — Joan Didion
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion
Joan Didion has been my go-to author this year for personal essays: I love that even when the subject matter is focused on an external object, she always comes back to how these things, people, and events fit into her own life and sense of self. I’ve spent hours analysing her minimalistic, pared back, considered (almost too much at times) prose, admiring the honesty in her refusal to go beyond her experience and say anything she doesn’t know.
During the winter, while doing some research on Didion’s The White Album for an essay I was writing, I got a chance to watch the Netflix documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold – as a productive study break of sorts. Between cinematic shots of California, interviews with the writer, and black-and-white photographs from the 1960s, I found my next read: one of her works of fiction, of which I hadn’t read any so far.
Play It As It Lays is Didion’s novel about 1960s America, and I’ve been eyeing it on my shelf for a couple of weeks now, waiting for the right moment to come. When it does, I hope I will be up for the existential challenges it will inevitably bring.
7. How Do You Like Me Now — Holly Bourne
Following a predictable pattern, Holly Bourne’s debut novel for adults arrived in my to-be-read list via The High Low podcast. It follows an interesting and timely premise: what if Tori, a self-help guru, with the perfect life purpose, goal-worthy relationship, and enviable social presence, is actually living a lie? What if, behind the perfection and success, she is actually deeply unhappy, insecure, overthinking every move and each social media post? Knowing her own unhappiness, should she continue to spread her message, which has positively influenced tens of thousands of people across the world, or should she come clean?
I expect How Do You Like Me Now? to be one of the lighter items on my reading list this summer, and I that’s more than okay. I also expect it to force me to confront anxieties around social media and the performance of modern life, as described by Matt Haig in Notes on a Nervous Planet. And come to think of it, those anxieties aren’t really so light after all.
8. Sapiens — Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Technically, this book really isn’t new to me – I started reading it late last summer, in e-book format. I loved reading it on my bus journeys home from work, making notes and highlighting big chunks of text as I gained insights into the history of our species, and the roots of our human cultures. I made it about a third of the way through before life intervened, but have been wanting to get back to Sapiens ever since.
Whether or not this book is a completely accurate scientific account can easily be disputed – prehistory does have a tendency towards guesswork and overarching hypotheses.
If you can look past it though, and subscribe to the idea that at the heart of civilisation lies the human ability to band together and believe in shared ideas, to tell stories and to make meaningful exchanges, then this book is the perfect read, no matter the season.
Hopefully by adding it to my summer reading list I’ll finally get around to finishing it.
9. How to Fail — Elizabeth Day
I have written about my fear of failure before, in my very first post on this blog. I’ve found it to be the single most crippling thing that can destroy motivation, prevent taking action, and make you feel like you’re undeserving of success.
Fear of failure (or memories of past failures) has been the reason that I haven’t been pursued a writing project like this before. It’s the reason I’m anxious before any social gathering, and it’s the reason why it took me a year to book my first driving lesson.
Elizabeth Day’s message is that failure is nothing to be feared – everyone experiences setbacks on their individual journey, and it’s important to share these stories in order to paint a true picture of reality, and set realistic expectations. Mistakes are some of the richest learning resources, and success is almost impossible without them. As Day herself puts it, “learning how to fail in life actually means learning how to succeed better.”
I look forward to reading How to Fail this summer, or, failing that, at least listening to Day’s podcast, with the same title. I have a feeling that with launching a website, building a business from the ground up, and trying to find a great graduate job, I’m going to need the reassurance that failure is okay, now more than ever.
10. Conversations with Friends — Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I’m a big fan of a full circle moment, and this is one of them. I’ve already praised Sally Rooney’s Normal People and explained my personal connection to her writing earlier in this post, so I won’t bore you further with the details.
Conversations with Friends is Rooney’s first novel, preceding Normal People, but similarly set in Dublin and following the lives of two college students. It was also recommended to me by many people in my life, though less fervently – one of my lecturers described it as “weird” in a seminar, though still deemed it worthy of reading.
Having enjoyed Normal People so much, I’m expecting a similar experience with this one, though I do feel a little worried that it might not quite live up to my expectations. What’s guaranteed, though, is Rooney’s intelligent prose, layered characters, and sharp observations. I’m excited to see the kind of image of summertime Dublin Rooney has sketched in this one, and what the story holds in store.
Wrapping it up
That wraps up my summer reading list for 2019. I will likely end up adding to this as I go along, depending on my mood and how busy I am. For now, this is a great place to start – a way to ease myself into the written word once again.
I hope my reading list helps you find some inspiration for your next summer read, and that it motivates you to take time out of your busy schedule for reading. Please share what books you’re excited to dive into this summer in the comments or on Instagram, I would love to hear your recommendations!
Wishing you all a wonderful summer,
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