The question on the modern bookseller’s lips isn’t ‘what’ we’ll be reading this summer, but ‘how’. And this year, for the first time since e-readers started creeping into suitcases, the answer is an old-fashioned one. As reports continue to emerge about the negative impact of light-emitting devices on sleep, on our inability to retain the information we e-read, and the lower royalties accrued by authors for e-book sales, it seems people are returning to the printed word.
According to The Bookseller, it’s the second year of decline in e-book sales for all but one of the UK’s big publishers. Meanwhile, The Publishers Association reports that sales of physical books increased by 1% to £898m, from January to June 2016, driven by a 6% increase in (physical) consumer book sales. Digital revenues, meanwhile, fell by 7% to £182m. However, it seems we still like audiobooks: revenues continued to grow last year, with downloads increasing by a hefty 24% to £6m.
As for how many books to pack? The fewer the better. American mathematician Jordan Ellenberg recently came up with the playful ‘Hawking Index’, which estimates how much of a book most people have read. Plenty of us, it seems, don’t make it to the end. Summer isn’t the time to wade through an A-level reading list. Instead, pick works that bring your chosen travel spot to life. Reading As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning in Spain, or anything by García Márquez in South America, is one of life’s great pleasures. And from our 2017 hit list below? Pick two titles, add an easily digestible airport bestseller (how about Paula Hawkins’ hotly anticipated new one, Into the Water?), and you’ve got the makings of a journey with a happy ending.
The 13 books of summer
1 // The legendary tale
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman. RRP: £20 (Bloomsbury)
Gaiman explores the source of inspiration for many of his fantastical works of fiction (such as Coraline, and the Sandman comic series): the deities, dwarves, giants and gods of Norse mythology. Get under the skin of Odin, understand the brute force behind Thor and see long-dead Nordic legends brought vividly to life in this latest from the master of the dark fairy tale.
BEST FOR: Summer naysayers; conjure frozen landscapes and the northern lights in mid-August.
2 // The real immigration story
One Day This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul. RRP: £12.50 (Picador)
A sharp, scathingly funny collection of essays about the life of an Indian immigrant growing up in Canada, in this debut book from Twitterati/BuzzFeed darling Scaachi Koul. Racism, sexism, body image, internet trolls… Koul takes on life’s miseries and gives them a long, withering look.
BEST FOR: Celebrating difference. This is an immigration tale that bites back.
3 // The graphic travelogue
Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke. RRP: £24 (Pantheon Books)
A pictorial travelogue through the world’s ruined places, from the post-industrial cities of the American Midwest to the ghostly streets of Burma. This debut from Kristen Radtke is a memoir of a haunted itinerant life and a travelogue, not just of ruined physical places, but also of people.
BEST FOR: The metaphysical traveller; take a journey through the mind, body and soul of the places left behind.
4 // The living history book
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, by Bettany Hughes. RRP: £25 (Weidenfeld
Historian Bettany Hughes explores the place we know as Istanbul; Byzantium of the ancient past; and Constantinople, the capital of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires.
BEST FOR: Time travellers; immerse yourself in ancient Istanbul, through archaeological discoveries, to courtly scandals and the battle of faiths.
5 // The expanded Twitter account
Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, by Jomny Sun. RRP: £11.60 (Harper Collins)
The age-old question: what would an alien make of our species, if beamed down to Earth? An eloquent, if mostly misspelled, answer has been offered up, in the shape of the enormously popular Twitter account, @jonnysun, and the related illustrated story of a lonely alien called Jomny. Life lessons via tadpoles hatching, puppies barking and other everyday happenings.
BEST FOR: The inner traveller; learn how to be the best kind of human, from an extraterrestrial.
6 // The arty short story collection
Stories for Ways and Means, by various. RRP: $98 (£76) (Waxploitation)
Some years ago, Jeff Antebi, founder of record label Waxploitation, started asking his favourite recording artists and painters to collaborate on original children’s stories for a benefit project. The resultant collection of dark tales for grown-up children (plus a series of accompanying short films) is penned by such cult greats as Nick Cave, Frank Black, Laura Marlin and Tom Waits.
BEST FOR: Big kids, music lovers, but probably not actual children.
7 // The lost classic
I’d Die For You: And Other Lost Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. RRP: £16.99 (Scribner)
If you’ve never got further than The Great Gatsby (or even Baz Luhrmann’s recent celluloid vision of it) then this short story collection is a great way to dip a toe further into Fitzgerald’s world. Not designed as an ensemble, most stories were submitted individually to major magazines during the 1930s, some as scenarios for movies; many had been physically lost until recently.
BEST FOR: Big book/classic writer commitment-phobes. Dip in and out at will.
8 // The frontline story
The Raqqa Diaries: Escape From Islamic State, by Samer. RRP: £9.99 (Hutchinson)
Learn what it’s like behind the ISIS frontline. This is about as far from fake news as you could hope to get: the brutally brave diary, written under a pseudonym, of a freedom fighter in the occupied Syrian city of Raqqa, who risked everything to make contact with the BBC and share his story.
BEST FOR: Current affairs addicts; turn off that Twitter feed and read something weighty, straight from the source.
9 // The laugh-because-you’ve-got-to book
How the Hell Did This Happen: The US Election of 2016, by PJ O’Rourke. RRP: £14.99 (Grove/Atlantic Monthly)
He may be getting on a bit (and his shtick, too), but libertarian satirist/journalist PJ O’Rourke hasn’t lost his gift for the one-liner. This book isn’t going to give you much insight into the ‘whys’ of what happened, but if you want a well-calculated laugh in the age of Trump, you could do far worse. Have Google to hand for ‘who’s who’ checks; O’Rourke isn’t afraid of naming (really) minor politico players.
BEST FOR: Wannabe Washington policy nerds.
10 // The magic realist escape
Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami. RRP: £16.99 (Harvill Secker)
Those who have devoured all that Japan’s maverick, magic realist has ever written have had this, Murakami’s first work since 2013, on pre-order for months. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of stepping into the weird worlds painted by the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, these short stories are the perfect taster.
BEST FOR: Escapists. Immerse yourself other people’s surreal lives and utterly forget your own.
11 // The classic travelogue
South and West, Joan Didion. RRP: £9.99 (Knopf)
This volume of travel tales contains two previously unseen excerpts from the US writer’s notebooks; one about a road trip Didion took in 1970 through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and the other, in California, which touches on her coverage of the 1976 Patty Hearst trial.
BEST FOR: Lovers of literary journalism and Americana.
12 & 13 // The most hotly anticipated books of 2017…
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy. RRP: £14.99 (Hamish Hamilton)
After a 20-year gap, this book follows Roy’s debut, The God of Small Things, which won the Man Booker Prize (and took the world by storm) in 1997. It’s being billed as ‘an intimate journey across the Indian subcontinent from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi and the glittering malls of the burgeoning new metropolis to the snowy mountains and valleys of Kashmir’.
4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster.
RRP: £20 (Faber & Faber)
Second place to Roy’s — only because it’s a whopping 900 pages long, so unless you e-read, this is a luggage buster — is Auster’s first novel in seven years. Published on his 70th birthday, this hefty tome follows a boy (who, like the author, was born in 1947) and four alternative and parallel life stories. A fascinating examination of how the smallest decisions shape a life.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)