What to read at the cottage is one of life’s most delicious worries, but it’s a worry nonetheless. If you don’t arrive lakeside with a book you like, you could end up having to pick something from one of those shelves that cottages always seem to have, the kind filled with books that were on bestseller lists half a lifetime ago, and outdated Peterson Field Guides and children’s puzzle books from the 1950s. Worse, you could end up on your phone. And if you’re on your phone at the cottage, why even bother going? You may as well bring the desk from your office and set it up by the dock.
A trip to the bookstore in search of a perfect cottage read can be confusing, especially when you’re rushing to pick one just before heading out. The book you want to read in the city isn’t necessarily the one you want to read at the cottage. In the city, you’re thinking about getting better at your job and being a better parent to your kids, if you have them, and maybe improving yourself if there’s any time left. At the cottage, you should stop thinking about all that nonsense. Good cottage reading shouldn’t be anything that can help you. It shouldn’t be something you really ought to read, to impress your friends, or whatever. Reading at the cottage should be like life at the cottage: beautiful and pointless.
You could, if you wanted, find a new book. They publish tons of them. And it might be great, this new book that you’re gambling a chunk of your summer on. But there’s another way, and I guarantee it. I call it the P.G. Wodehouse method. P.G. Wodehouse, mainly famous as the author of the Jeeves stories, believed there were two ways to write: “One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn.” The corollary to this statement is that there are two ways to read: go high or go low. Either pick the finest expressions of the human spirit or a pick a well-made commodity.
Wodehouse himself is a great place to start if you want to take the well-made commodity route. I have a box in my attic filled with crumbling paperbacks that I take to the cottage, and a good portion is filled with cheap Wodehouses. His well-known books are glorious—the Jeeves novels (the earlier the better) and the Blandings stories (the later the better) are almost certainly guaranteed to improve an afternoon lakeside. But after repeated rereading, I have come to prefer several of the lesser-known characters—the Mr. Mulliner stories are some of his most detailed plots and include many of his most perfect sentences. The Uncle Fred stories are even better.
My box of paperbacks contains a whack of murder mysteries too, and I’m afraid these are of the most predictable banal nature. Agatha Christie and a bunch of her imitators, alongside Georges Simenon and a bunch of his imitators. They’re short. I know them. I know they’re good. There are a few new thrillers in there too, Adam Sternbergh’s Spademan books and a couple of random Michael Connellys, but I prefer mysteries old, because the old ones are so gentle. The murders are excuses for plots, not graphic, violent anatomy lessons. Among authors and publishers, the common wisdom about detective story readers is that they don’t want a new book or a new writer; they want a new addiction. Well, I like to keep my addictions mild. It’s like drinking at the cottage. You don’t make yourself drunk. You slowly happen to get drunk. Big difference.
Reading old paperback mysteries also has the definite advantage that, when you read them, it doesn’t matter if they’re destroyed. If you fall asleep on the dock, and they fall in the water, just pick up a new one. But this “cheap old thriller and comedy” route is well-trodden. I think that’s what most people go for when they go to the cottage, the reliables that aren’t going to test the brain cells all that much. There is another path in the Wodehouse method, however, and it’s also worth considering: going deep.
Bringing a superlong, super-involving novel can be a great way to pass time at a cottage, especially if you are staying longer than a weekend. I think the novels of Anthony Trollope were more or less designed for Canadian cottage reading. The writing is gorgeous and fluid. And the beauty of his Barsetshire series or his Palliser collection is that they are broken up into six novels. The Chronicles of Barsetshire are perfect. Every novel is, individually, a masterpiece, and if you get tired in the middle you can just stop. But if you do manage to read through all the way to the end of the sixth novel, you feel like you’ve lived an alternate life, complete with an alternate family. It’s about as rich an experience as fiction can provide.
But I say, if you’re going to go deep, go deep. Why not try philosophy? I don’t think nearly enough people consider this option when they go to the cottage. Take Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s sort of like doing a crossword puzzle that’s slightly above your level. You read a bit, then you look up at the lake, then read a bit more, then you sip your coffee, then you look at the lake again, then you read a little bit more. There is something restorative about contemplating Heidegger’s distinction between Being-in-itself and Being-in-the-world while you’re watching salamanders scurry from the woodpile, or you’re throwing a log on the fire, or looking up at the stars. It almost makes sense when you’re out there.
Part of the beauty of being at the cottage—maybe the main beauty—is stepping out of the business of everyday life. Disappearing into a book is an essential part of that escape. The palace of literature has many levels and many rooms where you can hide from the world. Next time, try the attic or the basement.
Journalist and author Stephen Marche lives in Toronto. Any of his six books would make for excellent cottage reading.