Why Summer Reading Lists Give Me Sturm und Drang


John Maynard Keynes who amazed people with his ability to read quickly.

Now is the time of year when newspapers publish their summer reading lists. The Financial Times, The Economist, and The Guardian will all have pages of elegant and succinct reviews of books published in the last six months. These recommendations first inspire and then depress me.

Richer and wiser

Initially, the FT summer books list makes me feel cleverer, richer and downright discerning. I rub shoulders with the ‘brilliant’ and ‘risk hungry’ entrepreneur Elon Musk. I imagine myself to be as ‘cultured and splendidly entertaining’ as classics professor, writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Edith Hall. I am profoundly moved by hill farmer James Rebanks’ powerful and ‘utterly unsentimental prose’.

I can’t help noticing that these witty and erudite reviewers are often writers and journalists who have written another book about the same topic, but are too modest to say so.

Expensive and authentic

I imagine that people who read the FT summer books list are about to close down their London operations for at least a month. They will fly first class on an airline approved by Tyler Brulé, to a carbon neutral nirvana that is expensive and authentic. This could be me!

“This item was already in the WishList. We’ve moved it to the top of the list.”

But having studied the summer reading lists I come to the same the conclusion as I did after reading the equally tempting book lists for Christmas. The truth is that these books have been in the shops for months. I’ve already added them to my WishList. All this clicking and adding is mere wishful thinking. What I never seem to learn is that if a book has been on my WishList for 6 months, and I’ve not read it, I am not going to read it.

I love books, I love reading, and I am overly influenced by what other people are reading. Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics is a ‘nudge’ to help me make a good decision about what to read. I admire Thomas Piketty for his stand on inequality so much, but I know I will never get around to reading Capital in the 21st Century, even to improve my French. If Colm Tóibín, one of my favourite authors, recommends another book about mothers and sons, I will definitely put it on my list. Then I will quietly forget about it.

“You read so many books!”

There are books that I feel obliged to read for my work because everyone else is reading them. What I have discovered is that, often, I only need to read the introduction and the conclusion to sound impressively well-read.

And there are biographies, diaries and letters of the seriously gifted, like Maynard Keynes, that I really want to read, and sometimes actually do. Maynard Keynes astonished people with his ability to power read. I can read about one book a week provided I don’t drink wine with my supper.

There is another category of books that I do buy, and then don’t read. Eventually I take them to my local charity bookshop. This is quite an expensive habit.

The fact is I am not in the same league as hunky Elon Musk. Although I’m sure I could learn from his life story, I just don’t have time to discover how he satisfies his hunger for risk.

But I might treat myself to that book about hill farming. I think I would enjoy striding about the fells with a book (unread) under my arm.

My Summer Reading

For the record, this is my list of summer reading:

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Introducing the Ancient Greeks by Edith Hall

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard Thaler

Sapiens: A brief history of mankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The Shepherd’s life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport Hines





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.