What to read this summer: recommendations from writers who teach

There are few things I can think of more pleasurable than bending back the cover of a new book. Doing it somewhere lovely, preferably with sand and water added to the mix and rendering it inconvenient to check email on a smart phone, tends to heighten the experience. We all need a day or two each year where the primary objective is turning pages.

The summer reading list might be a trope, a marketing scheme or a reason to write listicles, but it’s one cliche I embrace. Being someone who deals in stories for a living both on screen and the page, I also consider it a professional responsibility. “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker,” is Werner Herzog’s famous advice to aspiring cinema auteurs, and this applies equally to anyone interested in writing or telling stories in any form.

So in that spirit I decided to ask a pair of writers, friends who are also writing teachers beloved by their students, what their summer reading list looks like looks like. Here’s what they had to say:

Patricia Ann McNair


Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection of stories, The Temple of Air, is filled with Midwestern grit reminiscent of vintage and contemporary classics like American Salvage and Winesburg, Ohio. The stories are at turns haunting, beautiful, dark and funny and bittersweet. It’s a book that would certainly add a dash of Heartland gothic to any summer reading list. Patty teaches writing at Columbia College, Chicago, and keeps her finger squarely on the pulse of work that feeds the imagination of incipient writers. Here are her thoughts on summer reading:

What’s on your “to read” list this summer?

  1. Horsefever, a fast-paced and beautifully written literary mystery by Lee Hope.
  2. The Telling, by Zoe Zolbrod, a memoir of family secrets and their effects.
  3. Excavation, by Wendy C. Ortiz, a memoir about a teenage girl’s complicated and inappropriate relationship with her teacher. (I have been drawn to memoir lately, the voice of the narrator, what gets told and what doesn’t, the way memory shines and fades)
  4. Miles Between Me, a collection of essays about family, home, and so many other things by Toni Nealie, a Chicago writer who is from New Zealand originally.
  5. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway. I am reading this because I haven’t yet (I know, I know) and because I hope to be traveling to Paris this winter and haunting Hemingway’s haunts.
  6. Hey, Liberal, by Shawn Shiflett (out in September, that’s still summer, right?) A story about a boy who is among the only white students in a mostly black high school in Chicago during the turbulent late 60s.
  7. Whatever else I fall in love with on the shelves of my local bookstore!

Do you change up your reading habits for the summer, or do you stick to a regular routine all year round? If you do change, how?

I definitely read differently in the summer than I do during the rest of the year, but not so much in my choices as in my process. Since I teach and have much of the summer off, I can spend whole days reading (jealous?) and I often do. I also have time to read for the sheer joy of it in a way I might not while I am teaching and reading so much student work and re-reading texts, digging and trying to understand what the writers (student and published) are doing.

During the summer I am usually working on a writing project of my own, and so I look for books that I can learn from, even if I am not actively analyzing them as I might while I am teaching.

What novel would you recommend as the “ultimate beach read?

Besides David Baker’s Vintage? (A really perfect beach read with its misguided but funny hero, its mystery and twisting plot!) I think this summer I would vote for Chris Rice’s Swarm Theory (novel in stories) as the “ultimate beach read.” It is not a sunny book, but the writing is lovely, the characters are beautiful in their flawed ways. It is set in a fictional small town near Flint, Michigan, so it seems topical, too, right now. It puts me in mind of the work of Bonnie Jo Campbell and other fearless women writers.

You’re a writer who teaches, so in that regard, if you were to prepare a summer reading list for an aspiring writer, what books would make the cut?

I am going to assume my aspiring writers are relatively mature ones, all right? To challenge them, I would suggest Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby. These books are very different in content, but to my mind, they are much alike in their musicality, their rhythms and the sound and beauty of their words, their sentences. Side-by-side I think they are really interesting.

Short story writers should read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhump Lahiri, The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age (anthology), Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell, everything by Flannery O’Connor, Flashes of War by Katey Schultz. This selection holds a wide array of forms, of styles, of voices, of narrative content, of promises and payoffs. So much to learn from here. The Art of the Essay, edited by Philip Lopate. Gatsby. Everyone must read Gatsby. Just because.

This is a very abbreviated list, but if an aspiring writer were to read just these in a summer, she would see a great deal of what is possible when putting pen to page.

Daren Dean


Daren Dean’s debut novel Far Beyond the Pale is a headlong journey into youth and a mythic Missouri landscape. Following the misadventures of the child protagonist Honeyboy and his beautiful and tragic Mama along the bottom rungs of economic ladder. It’s one part Faulkner and one part Huck Finn with a dash of Larry Brown added to the mix. Daren also teaches writing workshops at Louisiana State University.

Here are Daren’s thoughts on summer reading:

What’s on your “to read” list this summer?

 My reading list is a real hodgepodge but I don’t have rules about this sort of thing. I’m even including a few books that haven’t come out yet and some I’ve already read: Zero K by Don DeLillo, A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post; Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich; The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock; Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner; Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers; Little Sister Death by William Gay; Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith; Roberto Bolano’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews; A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews; Refund by Karen Bender.

Do you change up your reading habits for the summer, or do you stick to a regular routine all year round? If you do change, how?

During the academic year I’m reading less fiction and more nonfiction. I’m always looking for content that I think might be thought-provoking to my students to serve as writing prompts since I teach almost all writing-related courses. I have some websites that have proven to be helpful in terms of the geniuses who write for Edge.org and answer an annual question such as “What Do You Think About Machines That Think?” Also: BrainPickings. YouTube Channels: The School of Life; The What If Conference; PBS Idea Channel.

What novel would you recommend as the “ultimate beach read?

 Ultimate Beach Read? Wow. Tough one. One I’d recommend for anyone who lives in the south is Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. The Savage Detectives and The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano. If you want something more like a bestseller/beach read I want to read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series because I’m a huge fan of the show–I’ve peaked at the books and they’re on my list. Van Gogh: His Life and His Art by David Sweetman; Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

You’re a writer who teaches, so in that regard, if you were to prepare a summer reading list for an aspiring writer, what books would make the cut?

I’ve have to know a little about the writer in question. I can say the books that were inspirational to me were everything by Mississippi writer, Larry Brown; The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford; The Iliad; The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor; Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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