Some book titles for your ‘Serious Summer Reading’ list

By Victoria Waddle | Contributing Columnist

When we think of summer reading, we think “beach reads,” books we can’t put down that provide an escape from reality. But in these longer summer days, we may find ourselves with time to tackle a goal that eluded us during the busy months of the academic year: reading intellectually stimulating books that engage with reality rather than run from it. However, out in the sunshine, a lengthy classic time is more than we want.

Here’s the solution to the dilemma: A “Serious Summer Reading” list. Like beach reads, the books have narrative momentum, an engaging plot, and brevity. In addition, to deserve the designation of “serious,” titles include at least one classic element — dazzling language, a puzzle to ponder, psychological depth, or thoughtful engagement with social issues. Due to limited space, I’m including just a few of each subcategory here. I’ve created a longer list on my website.

You Should have Read it in High School: If you relied on Spark Notes in your youth, four short, engaging classics with thematic connections to our era are “The Lord of the Flies,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and “My Antonia.”

Victoria Waddle is managing editor of the Inlandia Institute online journal, a€œInlandia: A Literary Journey.
Victoria Waddle is managing editor of the Inlandia Institute online journal, a€œInlandia: A Literary Journey.” (Photo courtesy of Carol Erickson)

It’s a Mystery: Consider tackling the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. As a friend reminded me, “Each book is short enough for the summer attention span, but the collection can take you from Memorial Day to Labor Day.” And if you’ve never read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” summer is the time to do it.

You’d Like to Learn Something but Need to Laugh (a lot): Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” also fits in the “Vicarious Vacation” category if you can’t get away this summer. The only nonfiction on this list, it’s a modern-day adventure classic. Bryson and a friend attempt to hike the (entire) Appalachian Trail. While you learn about human nature, hiking, and the trail, you’ll also be in stitches.

A Bit of Magic: If you enjoy fiction with supernatural elements, try “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights.” While Salman Rushdie is one of the great writers of our time, the length of his masterworks may have kept you away. “Two Years” is a short, highly entertaining story in which a storm causes the veil between the world of the jinn and the ordinary to tear. A war between light and dark ensues, lasting a thousand and one nights. I agree with the publisher: it’s “satirical and bawdy, full of cunning and folly, rivalries and betrayals, kismet and karma, rapture and redemption.”

Classic California: Pulitzer Prize winner “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner tells the story of a 19th century woman’s desperate efforts to follow her husband through his California scheming. They move through unpopulated areas as he works to develop irrigation systems and other infrastructure the state isn’t quite ready for. Through letters to her friends “back East,” Susan makes apologies for her husband, laments being removed from culture and society, and longs for good books and her family.

A Master Class in Fiction: I think of the slim volume “Annie John” by Jamaica Kincaid as a collection of linked stories rather than a novel because I first read it as a series in the “New Yorker.” Kincaid has a way of circling back to a theme repeatedly and, in doing so, presenting something fresh. You will learn a bit about island life in Antigua while relating to the drama of a tightly woven mother-daughter relationship. If you’re a writer as well as a reader, you need this book.

You Want the Challenge of Difficult Topics and You Love Dogs: In “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez, a woman who doesn’t care much for dogs inherits a Great Dane when her longtime friend and writing mentor dies by suicide. This is a study of loss and grief and the narrator’s first canine connection. It’s a National Book Award winner.

Underrepresented American Stories: “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward narrates the trials of an impoverished Black family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi before and during Hurricane Katrina. Winner of the National Book Award, it is a story of familial love and the struggle for survival.

More Underrepresented American Stories: Louise Erdrich has written many short novels about Ojibwa people. “The Round House” is a National Book Award winner dealing with the sexual assault of a Native woman. Erdrich’s most recent novel is “The Sentence,” about a haunting and a reckoning in a bookshop. What’s better than that?

Astonishingly Original: In Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater,” Ada, born in Nigeria, develops separate selves as a result of having an Ogbanje (a godlike Igbo spirit) inside her. With “one foot on the other side,” Ada comes of age and attends college in America. The group of selves within her grows in power and agency, and their protection of her is, paradoxically, a danger.

Victoria is the author of the short fiction collection “Acts of Contrition.” For links to her reviews of, and writing prompts from, books listed here, go to and search “Serious Summer Reading.”