The return of summertime every year often recalls the years that will never return: the golden days of youth. The energy, the activity, the vitality, the shout of play in neighborhood and park stir up memories—the ghosts of juvenile instincts. Sun and sand. Tree and leaf. Bicycles and balls. The taste of watermelon. The smell of mown grass. The sound of crickets. Summer draws all to remember and relive their childhood through recreation and leisure; and a vade mecum of recreation and leisure is a good book. There is nothing like a story to illuminate the immortal realities, mysteries, and joys actively experienced; and this applies particularly to the seasons. In the fall, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is dusted off. In winter, A Christmas Carol lies open on end tables. What books, then, should be brought to lakesides, porches, and hammocks? Which stories provide that return to the perennial glories of summer and the passing glories of childhood?
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the soul of summertime for, in it, the line between romanticism and realism blurs in a blaze of sun. No other book places dog-day youth on such a high and holy pedestal, stirring in every heart that was once young memories of innocent insubordinations when “all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life.” The golden green of a warm Saturday afternoon, the Eden of Children, glows in the pages of this inimitable American classic.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also captures the most important thing about being a child besides summer: growing up. Tom Sawyer’s boyhood drifts toward an inevitable end just as surely as do the days of vacation. Just as surely as the child becomes a man, so must the childish world of miracles and mischief grow into to a world of tears, terrors, and joys—but no less full of adventure. Romance ultimately makes way for realism. The beautiful morbidity of a midnight graveyard is marred by a horrifyingly brutal murder. The ghostly haunted house turns out to be home to flesh and blood villains. Puppy love leads to loving sacrifice. Summer turns to fall. Roguery must face up to responsibility.
Although just a short volume, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, in fact, an eternal evocation of the human experience and the childlike genius of Mark Twain.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
What person does not look back on the madcap, lovesick follies of their youth—the days of mule-headed invincibility that gain strength in the haze of summer sun and the gaze of the opposite sex—with at least some degree of fondness? The spell of adolescence is one of the most beautiful jokes of creation. The romantic escapades that all undertake when they play the part of the lover are driven by a dramatic zeal. It is a zeal enflamed by a visceral, chivalric optimism that is truly charming and truly precious—the excitable lifeblood of the adolescent spirit. Though these ages, passions, and pursuits are often the silliest of life, they are exquisitely admirable in their devotion.
Savoring the insanity of young love is the sole purpose and pleasure of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Set in a faery world as magical, miraculous, and mischievous as the fleeting world of youthful affection, this romp rushes those who allow it into a reality of happy, mythic mockery and irresistible idiot passions where “reason and love keep little company”—and neither should they at a certain age. There is a time and a place for reason, but it is not on midsummer night when all should revel with an elfish mirth. The wild appetite for love and life racing in the heat of summer should find a way to be enjoyed, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a way.
The play is, indeed, what it claims to be—a sweet, strange dream dreamed innocently of a sultry, summer night. Nothing more. It is a light play about the lighter side of love and written in the lightest language of love: poetry. And poetry as only the puckish Billy Shakespeare can put it. What person does not hold the summer days (and nights) of their young adulthood as wondrous and blissfully inconsequential as a dream? Though “the course of true love never did run smooth,” there comes a time when all turbulences are remembered tenderly.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
There are not many stories that discover the lost innocence in every gown-up in the light of an aged wisdom like The Wind in the Willows. In fact, it may very well be one of a kind. It is a pastoral epic that brings men and women to laugh and weep like children over the beauties of nature, the securities of the hearth, the joys of friendship, and the love of life. And these are treasures that can only be appreciated when the soul stirs with that “spirit of divine discontent and longing” which time and experience alone bestows.
As a tale, The Wind in the Willows is about the animals of field, wood, and riverbank. As a fable, it is about humanity and the bonds between earth and heaven. It hints to us a little of what the wind whispers to the willows, reveals the rumors of the river, and gives a glimpse of the holy Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Just as summer reminds all of the praise due to common marvels forgotten, Grahame’s masterpiece praises the commonplace. The Wind in the Willows brings readers back to the wild woods, the wide river, the open road, and the home, giving them new life through a remarkable depth of feeling. It is the quintessential children’s story for adults, inviting contemplation that goes beyond childlike wonder—a book that requires patience, pondering, and even prayer.
Summer invites a type of self-reflection by way of the happy recollections of youth, and The Wind in the Willows is the perfect companion for this season of meditation and memory, for it is more of a mirror than a book. It is a story that reflects its reader. A. A. Milne, the chronicler of Winnie-the-Pooh, called the story a touchstone of one’s worth, writing: “[The Wind in the Willows] is a test of character. We can’t criticize it, because it is criticizing us… When you sit down to it, don’t be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don’t know. But it is you who are on trial.”
(Note: At the request of a loyal reader, Mr. Fitzpatrick and I have agreed to provide two sets of suggested Summer readings. The lists do not pretend to offer fulsome reviews in the usual sense. Rather, each of us will endeavor to entice readers onto the high seas of Summer literary pleasure. A second list of three will follow shortly. As we enter into the Dog Days, another list of books shall be offered.—WEF )
(Illustration caption: The image above titled “Companions” was painted by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1892.)