7 Books Every Smart Person Should Add to Their Summer Reading List

Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it’s time to put together your summer reading list. But what should you read? There are the conventional beach reads — books by Nora Roberts, Jennifer Weiner, or Nicholas Sparks — but if you're anything like me, those books don't necessarily appeal. On the other hand, Nancy Pearl's recommendations last year weren't exactly my cup of tea either. 

So what should we read? In my opinion, summer reading shouldn't be any different from rest-of-the-year reading; that being said, long, languid summer days tend to encourage a certain kind of reading.

Here are some books to put on your list. I've also suggested some basic genres that lend themselves to summertime. Any recommendations? Leave them in the comments!

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What better way to kick off the summer by reading a hilarious, snarky, and shockingly philosophical book? Douglas Adams’s classic comic science fiction book will both entertain you and make you think (but only a little — because this is summer after all; we have to relax a little). Plus, there are five sequels (four written by Adams, one written by Eoin Colfer), a movie, a TV series, and a radio series. You can basically make your entire Summer Reading list one big tribute to Douglas Adams, if you feel up to it.

2. Something Long

No summer is complete without that yearly attempt to read an immense classic. Maybe this is the summer you finish Moby Dick or start trying to get through Don Quixote again. Two of my suggestions? Give Vanity Fair a shot (the narrator is one of the best characters in the entire book and Becky Sharpe is always fascinating) or try David Copperfield (that way you kill two birds at once, you get a Dickens biography in addition to a Dickens book). Both are pretty snappy and full of interesting characters.

3. The Big Over Easy

Much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this is a book that will amuse you, confuse you, and change the way you think of literature (especially all the stories you heard growing up). Jasper Fforde is a crazed genius, and his mystery is as strange as it is effective. The novel uses fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and classic fiction to build an alternate world where Jack Spratt, with his new partner Mary Mary, has to investigate the murder of Humpty Dumpty. (Don’t worry--it gets even weirder.) Jasper Fforde has several other series going: Thursday Next (which I consider catnip for classics readers), Shades of Grey (a wildly inventive dystopia where people are sorted into a caste system based on what colors they can see), and the new young adult series The Dragonslayer TrilogyThe Big Over Easy also has a sequel and another one in the works. If you enjoy The Big Over Easy, try his other books; soon you’ll be celebrating Fforde Ffiesta and planning a trip to Swindon.

4. Something Creepy

It’s bright and sunny out--which means it’s the perfect time to read something creepy. Sit out in the sun and get lost in something that scares you. If you want to be creeped out just a little, try Neil Gaiman’s slightly scary books Coraline or The Graveyard Book. If you want some classic chills, try some Edgar Allen Poe (if you read his short stories, you can be done long before sundown). And there’s always Stephen King, if you want to be scared for your whole summer vacation (mostly because it’ll take your whole summer vacation to finish one of his books). If fiction isn’t your thing, you could always give Bill McKibben’s Eaarth a shot (hey, environmental catastrophe is scary!).

5. The Odyssey

Since it’s summertime, chances are you’ll end up near water at some point, probably with family members. Nothing evokes the ocean or traveling better than Homer’s The Odyssey. And nothing makes you reconsider your family more than Odysseus and his relations. Don’t dismiss this book as a rusty old classic. This story has a bit of everything — adventure, love, seduction, travel, death, hi-jinks, food, and loyal old dogs. Not only will this book make you happy that traveling these days is easy, it will also make you want to eat vegetables. (Seriously. All they eat is meat and bread.) You can read The Odyssey as either a poem or a piece of prose, depending on your mood and if you really get into it, check out Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey or Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, both powerful retellings of Odysseus’s long journey home.

6. Something Set in a Garden

Whether you read Michael Pollan's Second Nature or Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, read something set in a garden. You may not have the time to garden, but even reading something about gardens will make you feel more connected to nature, and it will make you appreciate summer in a whole new way. Besides, this is an easy way to slip a little nonfiction into your beach reading, Pollan's book is an easy read but it packs a lot in; Novella Carpenter's memoir of urban farming, Farm City, is another easy read full of fun and adventure. If you refuse to read nonfiction during summer, take a look at Patricia McKillip's Od Magic or any of Wendell Berry's novels, all of which explore farming to some degree or another.

7. Desert Solitaire

While you're sitting out working on your sunburn, why not read something set in the desert? This collection of essays is drawn from the journals Edward Abbey kept during his three summers at Arches National Monument in Utah. Abbey is an entertaining, if politically incorrect, writer and his love for the desert is obvious on every page. I'll grant that Edward Abbey isn't for the faint of heart or the easily offended (even people who don't usually get offended will find something offensive in Abbey's writing), but he is funny and an important voice in Western environmental writing. Plus this is a collection of essays, which means you can read them between naps.