Summer Nights and Reading Spaces

I remember the first time I noticed that a bright moon can throw your shadow as sharply onto the ground as the sun can. I made that discovery because I was out in a summer night, reveling in the cool breeze, the warmth rising from the land, the symphony of the crickets, and the smells of mown grass and horses and leaves.

In Japan, autumn is said to be the time for reading. Of course it can be done year-round, but for me, books and stories called most insistently when the world warmed up in spring, and when the spring unfurled into glorious summer. Naturally, there was the pragmatic reason: kids are burdened with school for most of the year, and it’s summer that offers the freedom to read unchecked, unhindered by that travesty that is organized education. In Japan, to describe hot, perfect summer weather, I still use the phrase bunshou no tenki — “writing weather” — which, yes, raises some eyebrows, since most people see no correlation between sweating profusely and a celebration of the arts. Sigh.

But as a kid, warmer and longer days meant that it was time for me to grab a book and go outdoors. Out in the shade of trees, out in that immemorial green light, was the truest and best place to escape into the worlds of stories. I can recall reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of the barn’s hayloft, my bare feet swinging in space. I read Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon (a “double-feature” book that flipped in the middle, one novel beginning from each end) sitting cross-legged atop a barrel on the grounds of our local historical museum, where my mom was ever active. I read some of the post-Jaws rogue animal books there, too, on the steps of the courthouse where Lincoln himself once practiced law.

I had a “reading grove” in the northwest corner of our front yard (where my dog Hooper was later buried). I would sit there on a folding chair with my feet propped in the fork of a young oak, reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In the same spot, using a lapboard, yellow legal pads, and a soft mechanical pencil, I wrote a great deal of The Threshold of Twilight, my first full-length novel manuscript.

Ooh, check out this picture! This is in the backyard of my house in Illinois: the gate from a long-gone corral, leaned against young maples in years gone by, half-swallowed by the growing trunks. This tendency of nature to reclaim human artifacts has always fascinated and thrilled me. I was thinking of such things in college when I wrote the lines, from “Urban Requiem”:

“In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.”

But I digress. I read a whole lot of Lovecraft in various places in the yards. I read most of Stephen King’s It on the banks of our pond and on the back porch. I read on shed roofs, in trees, on the hoods and trunks of cars, in the tire swing, atop the root cellar, and everywhere in between. When darkness forced me indoors, yes, I read there, too.

When darkness fell, though, sometimes I’d wander back outdoors, not reading now, but marveling at this wonder that was summer. As a teenager, I was quite taken with celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big deal in Tolkien’s works, and I think those are what introduced me to the concept. “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars. . . .” Pretty much all folkloric sources agree that it’s probably the most favorable time of year for encounters with the Good Folk. The question arises, though, as to when exactly Midsummer’s Eve is. Some say it’s the night before the solstice — June 20. Some prefer the night of the solstice — June 21. Some Christians choose to go with June 24, the eve of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. I say that whole week is fair game. Go with whatever night it isn’t raining.

Yes, I haunted the yard on Midsummer’s Eve. I’d take along a lantern — an oil-burning lantern, not just a mere flashlight, though I usually had one of those, too; I’d take a wooden staff I’d found in the woods, a fallen tree branch that I’d sanded and varnished. I’d take a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and another book, the front cover long gone, so I don’t even know the title; but it was a collection of stories and poems about fairies. And I’d take stationery and a pen.

I’d wander along the hedgerows, run my fingers over the oak bark, gaze up into the trembling firmament of leaves and stars; I’d raise my lamp and stoop beside the knothole among the roots of the two-hundred-year-old oak, which seemed indeed a likely place for wee magical folk to live. I’d sit on the picnic table and read from the books. Then I’d write myself a Midsummer’s Eve letter, describing the sights, sounds, feels, smells — the whole of the night, as best I could; and I’d tuck the paper into an envelope, to be kept with the books and read again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, along with the other letters from previous years.

After coming to Japan, for three or four years I dragged a group of good-natured friends along and combined this letter-writing custom with the practice of reading poetry aloud, a la the movie Dead Poets Society. But that’s moving on into another set of stories.

Finally, I should add that summer goes on for a long time: there’s no need to confine the celebration to one week in June. July brings what I call the “Deep Summer,” and August brings the grand Dog Days. It’s the best of all seasons, and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. Garrison Keillor advises, too, that we should make the absolute most of it: “Don’t try to sleep in the summer. You can sleep in the winter.” I remember a particularly nice June Eve, the last night of May, when I celebrated by watching Field of Dreams with my dad. If you’re blessed to still have your dad with you on this side of Eternity, that’s a really good movie to watch with him.

So, the discussion questions are two:

1. Does anyone care to tell us what is your best/favorite place to read in, either now and/or when you were a child? (It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Indoor reading is also condoned and encouraged.)

2. If summer nights are magical for you, what’s a way you’ve found to capture and enjoy that magic? What do you do (assuming it’s fit to print) to enjoy a night in summer to its fullest?

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15 Responses to “Summer Nights and Reading Spaces”

  1. Tandemcat Says:

    It’s a commentary on my frenetic lifestyle, but my current favorite place to read is on the seat of my exercise bike, while I’m riding. Just can’t do only one thing at a time, you see…. Actually, while riding on the trail presents a constantly-changing vista, riding an exercise bike is incredibly boring! Besides reading while riding it, I also listen to music, and sometimes watch a movie. In earlier days, I enjoyed reading on my bus (I was a bus driver for many years); I’m doing that again now, too, since I resumed driving. I’ve always felt like the bus was “my” space–comfortable and secure. (My fascination with buses goes back to childhood days, when I would line up all the chairs in the house in two rows, side-by-side, and sit in the “driver’s seat” at the front, with a toy broom in a wastebasket for a “gearshift lever.”)

  2. Catherine Says:

    Indoor reading is condoned and encouraged? Oh, wonderful! Then–my absolute favorite place to read is the old ratty couch in the living room. I know, it’s hardly exciting, but it has been in that spot pretty much ever since I can remember. It has an afghan covering the top that I can pull over me when I get cold, and it is just the right length that I can snuggle up to its cushions and keep warm and comfortable. It’s conducive to many reading positions (which is a plus–I’m a very restless reader). This couch was also a city bus, space shuttle, and airplane–at least it was to my sister and me…so if I get tired of reading and just want to imagine things, the residue of these previous fancies is still there…(and now I am really wanting to get out a book and start reading on the couch, so I’m going to stop writing and…)

  3. Lizzie_Borden Says:

    In a town called “Midland” in Texas there is a wonderful old classic haunted cemetery in the middle of the town. Many of the graves are surrounded by rod iron fences and such- and one of them has a huge tree growing around it. I wish I had pictures of it, but I haven’t been there since I was a kid. The images has stuck with me for life though.

    I can’t say that I really have any magical places to read. Most of my reading is done in very quick bursts of “I’ve got 10 minutes free! quick! where’s my book??”.

    Your photos are beautiful. It’s no wonder you have such an amazing imagination, it looks like you grew up in a painting.

  4. Tandemcat Says:

    Magical summer nights–did I say I live too fast? One thing that slows me down (a little) is getting out on the trail on a bicycle–almost always a tandem nowadays–haven’t been on a single bike in three years. Usually I and my fellow riders have to be home before dark, but in a few fortunate (unfortunate, in the eyes of some people with me) cases I have found myself riding in the dark. That’s not even allowed on most trails, but I’ve never heard of anyone who was arrested for it! The most vivid was when I was alone, fortunately for the squeamish–and it was my first experience of riding in the dark. I was doing my first century ride (100 miles) and did not start early enough. I found myself ten miles from my final destination at dark–9:00 p.m. Another rider came along–he had a very bright headlight (I hadn’t brought one because I “knew” that I would be done before dark!). I rode behind him for the first three miles. The police came along, but he just told them that we had gotten stuck and were trying to get home. They let us go. After he said farewell, the real magic began. Before it got dark, I had realized the fix I was getting into, and had memorized the locations of all the posts in the middle of the trail. There was just enough light in the sky for me to see the path, for the most part. Underneath thick trees it got really chancy! The sound of the river on my right helped out a bit. When bullfrogs croaked in trailside ditches, I jumped out of my skin! At last I got back to civilization, and it was a very intense sensation to see clusters of lights–like something out of a fantasy novel! There was another time in the dark when I pretended that Fred was with me on a tandem (I was actually on a single bike), riding in the dark for seventeen miles, but I _did_ have a flashlight, and that’s a story for another time! I am reminded of two more night rides in particular, and will post a poem I wrote about one. I never did write about the other one, but think I should.

  5. Tandemcat Says:

    This was a rare experience on our 2005 ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. We had a triplet (bike for three), tandem (for two), and a solo bike. At this point we were on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, next to the Potomac River, where it joins the Shenandoah, across from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. It was my third trek along this route. At this point we were five miles from our destination for the night: Brunswick, Maryland.

    HARPER’S FERRY

    Their path threads lush valley,
    Deep twilight, full moon overhead,
    Vast field of boulders to right,
    Strewn in broad river,
    Endless trail ahead and
    Trees extending out of sight
    In all directions, bathed in magic
    Light of full moon,
    As night descends.

    Silent lights twinkle in town
    On other shore as
    Three riders aboard one bike
    Drink their fill
    Of the Creator’s peace
    With thankful hearts,
    Pedaling homeward.

    Nightingale song from first stoker
    Ascends to crags above on left.
    On lofty railway bridge
    Red and green eyes wink
    Beside pitch-black tunnel mouth,
    Over silent empty track;
    Larger river joins the first,
    Confluence magnifying vastness.

    As triplet plunges under span
    Into deeper dusk,
    Second stoker, sweet lark,
    Joins the serenade.

    Captain’s heart is lifted
    As he guides among the trees
    Along familiar aisle;
    No fear of night.

    They glide on, headlight piercing darkness,
    Miles to go before they sleep.

  6. I love Bill's Toasty Says:

    Tandemcat needs to be alerted to RAGBRAI “The (Des Moines) Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa” a weeklong ride from the Missouri to the Mississippi which starts next week. It has been going on for 20+ years and draws — no kidding — at least 10,000 riders each year. It is a HUGE event, with many, many celebreties getting into it (Lance Armstrong rode for one day in 2006, pronounced his love for the event, and has been a fixture ever since).

    My favorite place to read has always been in bed. I love drifting off with a great novel, and I often use the excuse to myself of having something great to read to get in bed early. I read much history, politics and military history, and that is almost always done in my favorite recliner, preferrably with a cool glass of tea within reach. The couch is reserved for what has occupied almost the entirety of my pleasure reading the past five years, which is The Bible (yes, I conside it ‘pleasure’) and other religiously-themed books (I love Chesterton, Lewis, and the works of Scott Hahn, a Catholic convert and apologist).

    For as long as I have known Fred he has loved summer, with a certain weakness for autumn. I am much more the October/early November guy. Summer to me as a youth was late nights playing baseball and basketball, sometimes into the ridiculous hours once we learned how to turn on the lights at the softball field north of the high school. Amazingly, the police not once troubled us, so long as we were done and turned off the lights by midnight. I always wondered why they let us do this, as the city had to be paying for the big field lights, but I guess since they knew were 10-15 of us were, that meant we were not making mischief …

    As for reading outdoors, I could — and cannot — do it. I get too distracted, but I understand the allure.

  7. Tandemcat Says:

    After I posted last night, and with all this talk about summer and darkness, I felt another poem coming into my head! This was the conclusion of our 2005 ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, on a triplet, a tandem, and a solo bike, doing 47 miles on fully loaded bikes for the last day, leaving the Potomac River and the C&O Canal to head toward our final destination, following five different trails. We finished in the dark four days out of nine. The “other river” is the Anacostia–most people think only of the Potomac when our nation’s capital is mentioned.

    TRAIL’S END 2005

    Six had been riding all day;
    It was the ninth:
    Bike for three,
    Bike for two,
    Bike for one.

    They set a record
    Which still stands.

    It was hot;
    Along the way,
    They drank gallons of
    Gatorade,

    And ate a lot of
    Hamburgers and
    Anything else
    Within reach!

    Their path led from
    Still waters of
    Old canal and
    Rushing currents
    Of a mighty river,
    Dangerous to all
    And fatal to some,

    To a quiet house
    In a suburb of a
    Famous city,
    Capital of the
    World’s
    Most powerful nation.

    Capital Crescent,
    Georgetown Branch,
    Sligo Creek,
    Northwest Branch,
    Northeast Branch,
    Indian Creek.

    Tunnels and thunderstorms;
    Strange turns and a leap high
    Across busy railroad tracks

    To green, sheltered gorge,
    With arch after arch
    Spanning chuckling stream
    Amid tumbling rocks,
    Shaded by endless
    Green trees,
    And grassy playgrounds:
    Times of rest.

    Then distant vistas
    From atop tall dikes,
    Beside the other river,
    And gentler tributaries,
    Getting closer and closer.

    Ooops! It’s dark!
    Lead captain is happy;
    He rode along the banks
    Of these waters
    Many times
    In bright sunshine,

    Past parallel bars
    And chinups:
    Any kind of exercise
    You can do;
    Shadowy in the night,
    Tall, cloaked trees
    Closing in
    On either side;
    Noisy planks rattling
    On unseen bridges,
    Pale headlight fading fast,
    But almost home.

    At last,
    ‘Neath glowing
    Street lamps,

    They ride the last
    Two blocks
    Into the driveway,
    As the cuckoo clock
    In grand drawing room
    Strikes nine.

    High fives fly:
    They are finished
    With more than
    Three hundred miles.

  8. fsdthreshold Says:

    Concerning indoor reading spaces: I generally do the best at well-lighted kitchen tables or my desk, sitting in straight-backed chairs. If I get too physically comfortable, I fall asleep in about 20 seconds, so I’ve never been able to read in bed like some people can. Truth be told, sometimes I actually read standing up, pacing around a room, etc. [There’s a guy I see every Monday as I’m coming back from class; he’s a silver-haired gentleman, and where I always pass him is on Chitose Great Bridge, crossing the Shinano River–and he’s always reading a book as he strides along! That’s definitely making use of every second–I’m just glad the bridge has decent guardrails!]

    How about the second question? Tandemcat has given us a glimpse of riding a bike in the summer dark–anybody else?

  9. An Old Horror Hand Says:

    When I lived for a time in the enchanted valley of Lanesboro–nestled in among the bluffs along the Root River in southeastern Minnesota–I’d go out of a summer night and walk the trails. These bike trails are laid over the track-beds where the trains used to run, and there are stretches where one (save for the asphalt under one’s sneakers) feels like he might be slipping into Faerie. Especially when the lightning bugs come out, flashing their little white lanterns in among the folds of dark foliage. Cicadas and frogs join in the eerie night chorus, and some wonderful imaginative reveries unfolded there in the warm summer nights. I imagined trolls under the old stone-and-wood bridges, and wondered what I’d do were I to turn and see the wispy form of a spectre gliding up the trail behind me.

    Some nights I could get just a taste of that dread of the other-haunted woods that the original settlers felt. But most nights it felt more warm and welcoming than any city I’ve ever lived in, peaceful as the Shire, bathed in the secrets that Nature keeps, and sometimes shares.

  10. Baron Thredkil Says:

    Fred’s pictures do make central Illinois look interesting and pretty. That means he’s a good photographer. The fact that he can make art from central Illinois is a testament to the strength of the artistic spirit.

    I find Central Illinois is best appreciated from a safe distance, like oh about 800 miles or more. It’s prettier from a distance and in photos.

    My favorite reading space: a rocking chair that doesn’t drift across the floor. Sadly I am without a rocking chair at this time, so I read on the sofa.

    Summer: Summer used to be more fun for me, but when I lived in Boston I realized that Autumn was the only “real” season. Sadly in Southern California there is no fall, just fire-season. And of course, “earthquake season” which lasts all year long.

  11. Marquee Movies Says:

    Summer events that make it summer for me: 1) Rolling out of bed and walking to the corner coffeeshop to get a coffee and a lemon-poppyseed muffin in the warm morning sun. 2) When we get up to the family cottage on Memorial Day weekend, there’s always a lot of setting up involved in opening the place for the summer. I ALWAYS listen to a recording of The Hobbit that weekend, and throughout the summer when we’re up at the cottage. Rob Inglis does a brilliant job with Tolkien’s story, which lifts and envelops – it forever represents summer, freedom, the lake that surrounds the cottage, the loons, being somewhere special. When one weekend ends, I always try to time it so that Bilbo is somewhere reasonably comfortable when I stop listening; this way, the wait for my return to the cottage and the story won’t be too taxing for him. One summer, I had to leave him for several weeks in the trees while the wolves snapped below, and I still feel guilty about that!
    Two more events, both of which are one-time events that made summer a real SUMMER for me – last summer, my wife and I attended a showing of the movie Grease – a singalong version! It was an absolute blast! And just earlier this week, I attended a nighttime performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a beautiful outdoor theatre up in Wisconsin. The theatre is actually in the middle of the woods, so the setting helped make this MARVELOUS story all the more thrilling and fun to see!
    Long live glorious summers in the beautiful Midwest, or out East, or out West, or anywhere – the summer spirit and its beauty can be found anywhere by anyone willing to look for it.

  12. fsdthreshold Says:

    Now we’re talking! Marquee, that was beautiful! (I’ve seen the corner coffeeshop he’s talking about, and every time I saw it, there were GORGEOUS women sitting at counters along the front windows, using their laptop computers — made me want to develop an interest in lemon-poppyseed muffins, let me tell you!)

    I also saw a performance of _A Midsummer Night’s Dream_ at an outdoor theater on a summer night, and Marquee, I totally second your sentiments! The theater was like a shallow bowl beneath a roof on posts (no walls). The audience sat around the sides of the bowl, under the roof, with the stage at the lowest point, in the center. The woods were visible at all times around the theater. The actors made their entrances from every side, right down the aisles between audience seats.

    But aside from the play itself, some of the most magical moments of the evening were before and after the play, when people were just milling around. I remember all these faeries in full costume, laughing and talking in clusters in the summer night. But yes — what a fantastic story it is!

    Even in Japan, summer nights are truly magical and otherworldly. Tonight, the full moon is riding high over the rice fields, many of which are right here in the heart of the city.

    Interestingly, in Japan, midsummer is the time for telling ghost stories. The idea seems to be that supernatural chills help people to cool down in the hottest season. (I think it’s just that people like good scary stories, and if the culture doesn’t traditionally have a Hallowe’en, midsummer is just a good, logical choice for a time to engage in weird tales.) Some of my students have opted to tell scary stories for their final speeches. Far be it from me to discourage them!

  13. a wandering minstrel Says:

    Midsummer for telling ghost stories, eh? Interestingly, during the Victorian era, the Brits (and, to a lesser extent, Americans) told ghost stories around Christmas time, especially on Christmas eve. (Dickens’s _A Christmas Carol_ was written in this tradition.)

    Me, I tell (and read and watch and listen to) ghost stories year ’round, so it all works for me. 🙂

  14. fsdthreshold Says:

    Christmas is a logical time for ghosts, too, what with its proximity to the solstice, when daylight is at its shortest and thinnest. Nights are long, cold, and dark. (Which also, of course, makes it the perfect time for the appearance of the Light of the world.)

    I forgot to mention that the biggest reason for the Japanese association with midsummer and ghosts is the _obon_ holiday. It’s very much like the Celtic half of Hallowe’en, the dark half. At _obon_, the spirits of the dead are said to return to Earth, so gravesites are carefully cleaned, and much attention is given to the family altar.

  15. Marquee Movies Says:

    Honey, put out that ugly vase that our great-great-grandfather gave us – his ghost should be by any time now, and you know he’d like to see it on display. And kids, clean off that gravesite of his – were you born in a barn? I tell you, it’s a disgrace the way you leave things all over his gravesite! I don’t care WHAT’S on TV, clean it up NOW!

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