If you're like most people, summer reading conjures up one of two images. Either you're lying on a crowded beach, nodding off over a cracked-spined copy of the latest bestseller by James Patterson or Danielle Steele. Or you're hanging out with friends at a Labor Day barbecue, vaguely aware that there's some assignment you are supposed to complete before the new school year begins.
We'll admit: An open book makes an effective sunshade. But "summer reading" doesn't have to mean bad novels and book reports. What better way to lose yourself on a blazing hot, stiflingly humid St. Louis summer day not to mention keep your movements to an absolute minimum than in the pages of a good book?
Let us suggest a few books for kids and adults alike some new, some classic to wile away your hazy summer hours. And because you can't spend every day at the movies or the mall, or keep your air conditioner running 24-7 without taking out a second mortgage or eating your cat's food, let us suggest a few places to sit with your book.
Don't worry. They're well shaded.
Actually, we probably don't need to suggest a book for kids (and, we suspect, more than a few adults) because on July 21, J.K. Rowling will release Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final volume in the insanely popular and quite charming fantasy series. Still, that leaves several weeks to kill. If you don't spend them re-reading the first six books for hidden clues or to brush up on the rules of Quidditch, you might try His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman. The three books follow the adventures of a young girl and young boy across multiple worlds eerily similar to and strikingly different from our own. They feature sophisticated plots, great characters and beautiful writing.
Are you tired of wizards? Want your kids to try "serious" literature? Looking for a plain good read yourself? Consider the Anton Chekhov boxed set. Collected in these 13 volumes are 200 of this great Russian writer's stories, translated by Constance Garnett. It's a steep investment, but you'll treasure them for years to come. Besides, short stories might be the perfect medium for summer reading. You can read one between naps or while you wait for the grill to light.
Where to take the kids to read? Pontiac Square Park, at Ninth Street and Ann Avenue in Soulard, is a small neighborhood park, with a playground for when the kids get tired of reading and benches (and plenty of shade!) for you.
You probably don't need an introduction to Lafayette Park. But you might not know that it's the home field of the St. Louis Perfectos, who play baseball by old-time rules. That makes it the perfect place to read about baseball history. Of course, you'll have no trouble finding new books that chronicle the Cardinals' 2006 championship season, but we're not talking about recent history here.
Try probably the best baseball book ever written, The Boys of Summer, in which Roger Kahn follows the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and visits them several years later as they adjust with varying degrees of success to life after baseball. It's funny, heart-breaking and, fitting on this 60th anniversary of baseball's integration, a unique look at the life of Jackie Robinson.
Really, library and bookstore shelves groan under the weight of books about the game's history, but we'd be remiss if we didn't recommend the work of one of America's great journalists, the late David Halberstam. October 1964 chronicles the World Series battle between the Cards and the New York Yankees, both as a sporting event and as a symbol of America at the time.
Hard to believe, but St. Louis thinks about things besides baseball in the summer. Tower Grove Park, for example, hosts the annual Festival of Nations, a celebration of the food, customs and cultures of dozens of countries. In fact, Tower Grove Park might be our favorite place in the city, thick with trees, studded here and there with gazebos that let you enjoy the outdoors even during bad weather, but not thronged with tourists, joggers and bike riders like a certain other large park in town.
Tower Grove Park is also a great place to celebrate some of St. Louis's hometown authors. Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among many other works, was born here, and although Kate Chopin's most famous novel, The Awakening, is set in New Orleans, she lived here for much of her life.
Stanley Elkin, a member of the faculty at Washington University for 35 years, wrote some of the funniest and most humane novels in contemporary American literature. Start with The Dick Gibson Show, an uproarious and still-fresh take on talk radio. And few writers anywhere are held in higher esteem then William H. Gass. His Omensetter's Luck is a touchstone of postmodern literature. If you've never read Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a collection of stories, is a good starting point.
OK, we didn't really mean what we said about Forest Park. Sure, it's busy, but there's lots of it to share. A park with this many places to read demands a big, big book, and, lucky for you, last fall saw the publication of one of the biggest books to come along in quite a few years: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. The novel part high-brow literary event, part Marx Brothers movie, part comic book spans several decades, most of the world (including several voyages on an airship that's half-zeppelin, half-starship Enterprise) and a cast of hundreds. It won't all make sense, and you might want to throw it in the park's Grand Basin every now and then, but the adventure is worth it in the end.
The Grand Basin is one of our favorite reading spots in Forest Park. Another, sadly, is closed for the year: the World's Fair Pavilion. But just head out in any direction and you'll find a quiet, shady spot to sit with your book even in that center of summer craziness, the zoo! The area between the sea lion pool and the big cat exhibit, below the hill that houses the bird, reptile and primate houses, is beautiful and, even at the zoo's busiest hour, oddly tranquil.
Our suggested reading: What else but Welcome to the Monkey House by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr.?