BOOK SMART NOT HARD

If you want to read more books, organize your list by season

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

With new seasons come renewed promises: We will live more consciously. We will take better care of ourselves. We will read many, many more books.

That last one is common—yet more often than not, it falls flat. Changing a reading routine takes work; more than that, it takes strategizing. Tactics may even need to be fine-tuned for the type of book you’re looking to pick up more often. (See: Quartz’s guides to enjoying classic literature, reading exceptionally slowly, and figuring out how to pick books in the first place.)

But if your goal is to simply read more in general, here’s one way to hold yourself accountable: Instead of renewing this same tired vow every season, just organize your reading list by the seasons themselves. Plan out a year’s worth of reading—not haphazardly, but by deliberate design, using the weather and environment around you as guiding forces. You might associate spring with startling tales of discovery, for example. Winter, especially if you live in colder climates when the days are long and the darkness complete, could be reserved for the lengthiest tomes you’ve watched gather dust on your bedside table.

Not sure where to begin? Here are some of our recommendations—excellent books that also seem to fit with a particular season, though they may not, of course, evoke the same associations for everyone. When it comes to organizing reading lists, the most crucial thing is to keep things deeply, dearly personal.

— Autumn

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s debut novel is both less refined and more fascinating than his more renowned works. It centers around Amory Blaine, an arrogant, spoiled young man heading off on the quintessential journey of the elite: college, at Princeton. Fall permeates the book in more ways than one. It is the season in which the traditional academic term begins—but also the emotional tone of much of Amory’s youthful, first-time stumbling. “One knows always that he will be safe at the end,” the New York Times mused in its May 1920 review. Such comfort makes the story more enjoyable, not less.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. Written in 1960s San Francisco and New York, Didion’s collection of essays is not so much a bundle of nonfiction as it is a long, threaded musing on her own life, set to the daunting counterculture tempo of the times. Stories like “California Dreaming” and the iconic “Goodbye to All That” reveal a restless yet frustrated longing, evoking the image of autumn-browned leaves turning and turning in the wind, trailing down from forests of trees.

Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer. The first book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy—now being made into a film—is about a team of four female scientists sent on an expedition into Area X, a mysteriously and dangerously fecund region of some alternate-universe United States. You might think the sci-fi novel is best suited to spring given its verdancy, but really, the book is about transitional ecosystems. Something awful happened here, and now the area is new, terrifying, and alien. It’s a great read for the fall: Spring springs into warm embrace of summer, rapidly; fall is a slow burn into something the alien landscapes of winter.

— Winter

Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami. Magical realism lends itself nicely to winter reading—especially Murakami’s spin on it, which usually involves narrators transported into ethereal, timeless worlds (often, literally). Talking cats, moons, and parallel universes can often be relied on to make appearances in the fanciful Japanese author’s works. We recommend these two shorter novels for readers seeking fast-paced adventures, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for a slower burn.

My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgård—Or any other slow, lengthy personal tome that stretches sentences out to a tempo less bearable in any other season. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, to which My Struggle is often compared, is another example of this type of effortful but worthwhile book; George Eliot’s Middlemarch is another still. Winters are for unraveling other people’s life stories, rather than settling to steal short peeks into them.

The Castle, by Franz Kafka. “Kafkaesque” has become part of the contemporary lexicon, used to describe a certain type of nightmarish illogicality. Here, a man known as “K” moves to a new village and must get in contact with mysterious authorities; his struggles with the faceless bureaucracy is the archetypical Kafkaesque experience of the senselessness of power. But The Castle’s surreal winter setting is equally important in establishing Kafka’s visionary literary trope: Everything in the novel feels obscured and dampened by cold and snow, and “K” spends as much time trudging through snowdrifts as he does attempting to make sense of the contradictions around him.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. There is actually nothing at all wintery about this book—it takes place mostly in hot and humid Kingston, Jamaica, with characters and events circling the assassination attempt of Bob Marley in 1976. This is not a recommendation for an escapist fantasy of the tropics, though. In Brief History, the heat is oppressive; it agitates and incites, generating violence and volatility. It will make you glad for the cold. The novel is also as deep and wide-reaching as they come, requiring the sustained attention uniquely available to you on bone-chilling winter Sundays at home.

— Spring

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson. Forget everything you think you know about memoirs. The Argonauts doesn’t just bend genres; it breaks them into their molecular components and reforms them into something new that is consistently surprising and always emotionally and intellectually compelling. The work is organized around the story of Nelson’s relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, and explores the fraught nature of marriage, motherhood, and family. It’s also a story of rebirth and reframing, the ideal lenses through which one typically wants to see spring.

Tenth of December, by George Saunders. There’s a surprising generosity of spirit to Saunders’ short stories, given their often dark subject matter. He’s a spiritual heir to Kurt Vonnegut in this way: Like Vonnegut, Saunders uses science fiction and alternative realities to explore the troubling aspects of contemporary society, but does so with a light touch, laugh-out-loud humor, and an almost sunny disposition. Reading Tenth of December feels like walking down the street on a warm spring day, seeing every single person with their face buried in a device, shaking your head, and looking up into the sky.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Spring can be a time of wonder—also, sharp reflection. Bauby’s book was uniquely painful to produce, including physically: The author, a journalist almost completely paralyzed by a massive stroke, wrote it entirely via blinks from his left eyelid. It took 10 months, and Bauby died two days after publication. Diving Bell is tender, regretful, and filled with many soft, sweeping passages that stay with you all the more because of the labor behind them.

— Summer

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this book, though it reads nothing like previous claimants. That’s not to say it isn’t challenging or thoughtful. Diaz wields his words with a deft hand that makes for a smooth-flowing story peppered with humor, insight, and feeling. It’s a legitimately viable beach read, despite tackling serious issues like masculinity, oppression, and family tragedy. Though the story is far-ranging, the meticulously drawn portrait of Paterson, New Jersey in the summertime stands out among the many times and places Diaz visits.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s first published collection of nonfiction is by turns hilarious, poignant, and rigorously intelligent. It’s also incredibly summer-esque, with essays on the midwestern state fair, the US Open tennis tournament, and cruise ship culture. Because it’s made up of discrete essays, the book is also good for vacations, when your reading time might be broken into chunks of time on the plane, by the pool, and at breakfast waiting for your travel partner(s) to finally wake up.

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Another Pulitzer Prize-winner that also happens to be straight-up entertainment. This novel is epic in scale, using the history of comic books in America to tackle major themes of mid-century US history like immigration, anti-Semitism, sexuality, free-speech, and the riches and dangers of a capitalistic system. Chabon writes with wit and verve, and this tale of two cousins who help usher comic books into their Golden Age shines, like the characters Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay create.

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides. One would be forgiven for thinking that a novel about the deaths of five young girls does not make for light summer reading. But the reverse proves true: The Lisbon sisters, and the narrative that unfolds as a group of teenage boys struggles to understand the end of their lives, are captivating in the same way that summer’s sweltering sun and glittering pools are. Somehow, these silent figures who we never quite meet as real characters end up representing everything about youth, beauty, and the danger of it all. Think of the story as a summer noir, perhaps—an antidote to the bright neon cheer all around, and a glimpse into a coming darkness.


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