50 of the Greatest Summer Reads of All Time


Summer reading lists: everyone’s got ’em. But what makes an ideal summer read? It sort of depends on who you are and what you’re doing, but here are a few suggestions: something light, something funny, something sun-drenched and atmospheric, something to travel with, something that will hold your attention no matter what’s going on around you, something exciting — but still literary. Here, you’ll find 50 of the greatest of such reads (with one caveat: no books from this year, because you’ve seen enough 2015 summer reading lists already), perfect to squire you through these hot months. Check out some of the best books for summer below, and since no list could ever cover all the bases (that’s a seasonal baseball reference), add your own favorites to the list in the comments.

The Beach, Alex Garland

The cult travel novel in which three tourists make their way to a secret Thai beach, which they find to be occupied by an insular community. It’s paradise on Earth — until it isn’t.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lavish parties, existentially distressed debutantes, hot weather ennui, love triangles, American dreams, and green lights — what better ingredients for a sublime summer read? Plus, there’s that prose.

In the Woods, Tana French

If your summers have ever included tromping around the woods with your best friends, this one may be particularly up your alley — or not, depending on how easily spooked you are. French’s debut novel is a mystery about two incidents of child murder in the woods outside a small Irish town, separated by years but connected by a certain detective. This novel will get you sunburned. Come to think of it, read French’s entire oeuvre — the books get better and better.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Summertime, with its air of limitless possibilities, is perfect for reading SF. This novel might just be the most popular work in the genre ever, and has lots of sequels and prequels to hold you over till fall. Plus, there’s lots of sand.

Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman

The story of a love affair — between a teenage boy and the alluring Columbia postdoc who comes to stay in his house for the summer — on the Italian Riviera. This is a novel that calls up the thick promise and charged heat of summer wherever it goes.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

A thousand times duh. Sure, it’s mostly a midwinter book, but sometimes when it’s hot out you need a little talk of the cold to remind you how good you have it. More importantly, it’s a captivating backwards-mystery (a “why-done-it”) filled with delicious characters and even delicious-er plot twists.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

But of course! What better summer reading than the ultimate pirate novel? Read it, if you can, on a boat.

Kafka On the Shore, Haruki Murakami

You know that feeling that you can get in summer, where things seem not quite real, but not quite not-real, either? That’s the feeling of a Murakami novel, and particularly this one, stuffed with runaways and rains of fish, prophecies, Colonel Sanders, and conversations with cats. It’s like the mysterious large bag with just about everything in it that you always wish you had with you on summertime adventures.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

Dunn’s brilliant novel of the twisted lives of a family of carnival freaks is a little bit like a car crash: you can’t, won’t, mustn’t look away, however grim and gory things get. Unlike a car crash, the prose is flexible and spry and often hilarious. Like a car crash, you won’t forget it any time soon.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

If you sort of wish you were off that beach and inside a labyrinthine library somewhere — or if it’s just so hot that you want to imagine yourself in the confines of ancient stones — this twisty cult-favorite historical murder mystery is for you.

The Lover, Marguerite Duras

Short, sultry, and artistic, it’s the perfect summertime love affair.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

OK, so you might not want to read this on a family beach or anything, but let’s face it: Lolita is the best road-trip novel ever written. That’s right, Kerouac fans. You shut up now. Besides, it’s high literature that you won’t be able to look away from, because no matter how pretty your surroundings, it’s guaranteed that Nabokov’s prose is prettier.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

According to Aristotle, you’re supposed to indulge in comedy in the summer, and find catharsis in tragedy in the winter. So, your summer reading list should be filled with funny books, like Amis’ famous comedy of errors about a young professor trying halfheartedly not to make a fool of himself pretty much all the time. First, it’ll have you doubly happy not to be in school. Second, it’ll have you giggling into your lemonade.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

So small you can fit it into your back pocket, so expansive that it’ll fill train rides and whole summers.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

No matter how literary it may be, reading a graphic novel always feels a little like cheating — it’s a book made out of pictures, after all. It’s like the anti-homework. Satrapi’s story of growing up rebellious in Iran is one of the best in recent memory.

The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

Sebald isn’t perhaps an obvious choice for a beach read — there’s nothing exactly breezy about his writing — but he is the ideal travel companion, and summer is the best time for traveling. The Rings of Saturn is a stroll through space, time, and memory that will both stimulate your mind and stoke your wanderlust.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

The first installment in Atwood’s beloved trilogy, set in a near-future that seems all too possible. The prose is snappy, light, and funny, perfect for hammock-reading, but the ideas are large and looming, so you won’t feel you’ve wasted your time.

Just Kids, Patti Smith

Nothing’s better than running into old friends in the hot days of summer, and Smith’s delightful memoir about coming up in NYC in the ’60s and ’70s is the literary equivalent of doing just that.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

A real classic, and truly funny as all hell.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith

Ah, the carefree playboy life. It can be seductive, to be sure. Not to mention murderous. Highsmith’s classic psychological thriller is the perfect summertime caper, filled with good living and bad deeds, and nigh-unputdownable no matter what the night has in store.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

American Gods is compulsively readable and deeply entertaining — the forgotten gods of world religions battle the new gods of technology, humans the highly necessary pawns — not to mention endlessly discussable, which makes it ideal summer fare.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

A masterpiece that spans a century in the semi-magical town of Macondo, this book is like a long, lucid daydream. Only improved by a summer cocktail and a long afternoon.

The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy

A classic of literary neo-noir, set in the hot, corrupt, depraved streets of 1940s Los Angeles. Need we say more?

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

… or any David Sedaris, really. It’s like bringing your most hilarious (and smart and insightful and sometimes bleak) best friend with you to the beach.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Nothing makes you feel like a child again quite like summer — except maybe reading about the exploits of Huck Finn.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

In case for some reason you haven’t read this yet, we’ll leave it this way: you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan

A coming-of-age story set during one languid summer (among many, it seems) on the French Riviera, in which a teenage girl tries to keep hold of her father’s primary affections in the face of his mistresses — to disastrous results. Not as shocking now as when it first hit shelves in the ’50s, but still a perfect summer scandal.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

A lush, lyrical read that also delves into the terrible heart of betrayal, discrimination, and the dark side of everyone’s favorite thing: love.

The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn

These novels delve into the deliciously polluted world of upper-crust British aristocracy, rife with decadence and drugs, unhappiness and abuse, as they follow the eponymous Patrick Melrose through his charmed (or less-than-charmed) life. You’ll get addicted, guaranteed.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

A big ol’ showstopper, this one, which at 700-odd pages full of caper and comic books, spanning years and continents, is the perfect thing to take with you on your adventures.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

If nothing else, because both mixtapes and bad romantic decisions are better (and probably more frequent) in the summer.

The Complete Claudine, Colette

The exploits of a young French girl making mischief in school and beyond — and really just a fictionalized version of the indomitable Colette’s own life. Sensual and subversive, she makes an ideal companion on any hot day.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Probably the funniest work of science fiction ever written. Endlessly entertaining and also damn smart.

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron

Wit and wisdom and all the things you say secretly to yourself without thinking anyone hears: this is what Nora Ephron gives us. Perfect for beach reading with a bunch of friends — you’ll probably end up reading almost every page aloud.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

True to its name, this book is about as close to summer as something made of pulp can get — telling the story of six-year-old Sophia and her wise and cranky grandmother living together on a Finnish island in a series of beautifully crafted vignettes. And you know, those vignettes are perfect for reading between long walks, or long conversations with someone you love, or quick dips in the water. Just saying.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

A hilarious account of a childhood spent on the lush Greek island of Corfu — sans debt crisis, plus more fauna than you can shake a stick at. Attention good-mood seekers: this book is the definition of feel-good.

Self-Help, Lorrie Moore

If summer is a time for rejuvenation and reinvention, Lorrie Moore can help you with that. If you want to be a wry, self-effacing writer girl, that is (and you know you kinda do).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

Because it’s just so damn fun — and yet when you’re done, you feel you’ve read something really remarkable and important. No easy task.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch

If you wish you could move to a seaside mansion for the summer (or forever), first read this novel, one of Murdoch’s best, the story of an aging actor obsessed with reclaiming his first love. Perfect for rocky beaches — just don’t slip.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding

Pure, agonizing pleasure.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Too good for Bridget Jones, are you? Well then. Maintain your highbrow credibility by tackling Woolf’s modernist classic, which is, after all, about a beach house and the family that variously inhabits and abandons it. It’s not exactly light reading, but it does have that dreamy, experiential quality that truly good summers (and truly good old houses) can evoke, so why ever not?

Election, Tom Perrotta

The classic black comedy will make you thank your lucky stars you aren’t in school — at least for the moment.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

High seas adventure, science fiction, post-apocalyptic narrative, classic 19th-century novel, ’70s who-done-it, comedy — this book has a little bit of everything, and all of it wildly entertaining.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Seriously, what better reading for summer than a hilarious mystery set in an alternate 1985, in which a literary detective named Thursday Next (who has a pet dodo named Pickwick) pursues a criminal through, er, Jane Eyre?

Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

Larson’s gripping, novelistic non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who haunted its side streets is a major page-turner — and will teach you something, too.

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende

Allende’s beloved classic follows four generations of one Chilean family as the world changes around them. Moving, magical, and unforgettable.

The Virgins, Pamela Erens

Sometimes all you want in a summer read is a little voyeurism, a little sex, and a lot of great language. Amirite? And hey, even if you never knew that was exactly what you wanted, Erens has delivered it with bells on. You’re welcome.

The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen

Hugo Whittier is smoking himself to death — well, more quickly than your average smoker, anyway — and filling page after page of his notebook with snooty, smart-ass, misanthropic musings on food, family, and his certainty that his ex-wife was cheating on him. It’s all great fun, and perfect company for any summer afternoon.

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

This book has the hazy quality of a rumor, the urgency of spying on your gorgeous, troubled neighbors, the seriousness of death. And that first-person-plural narrator just reeks of childhood summers hanging out behind other people’s houses — except that there’s a lot more going on in this town than there ever was in yours.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

In case you wanted to read only one book this summer. Infinite Summer, y’all.