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Summer's Most Magical Form of Transport: Books

Shan Sa cover

I've always regarded reading as a form of mental travel. The first time I picked up The Odyssey, it was in a Classics Illustrated comic book. Its quasi-realistic drawings of monsters, heroes and gods were straightforward, literal and spare.

Then at university I read an actual translation of Homer's poem, and nothing remained the same for me after that. Even without the illustrations, these lives were gloriously illuminated -- heroes and heroines wringing from their day every molecule of meaning before that bright light faded away.

Oh, but what great light while it lasts. I've spent years in antique pre-classical adventures, sailing past monsters in whirlpools, fending off the destructive magic of witches, striving to reach home and the tree-bound bed of my inventive wife, the queen of Ithaca.

I've also been to China. Have you? I went to Mongolia in 1939 by turning the pages of Shan Sa's lyrical prize-winning first novel, The Girl Who Played Go. I've fought in our Civil War. I've trudged the muddy roads of medieval Europe with a troupe of raggedy actors. I've watched the Battle of Borodino from a safe vantage point and dodged musket rounds at the Battle of Waterloo. I've been to the Dublin bedside -- I can confess this, many thousands have gone, too -- of Molly Bloom. I've lived lives as a gunman, a boxer, a dancer, a painter, a mother, a daughter, someone else's father, someone else's son.

Books took me there. Books take us anywhere and everywhere. We look at letters on the page and translate them into scenes in our mind. When we read a wonderful novel, it's as though, as my dear old late friend John Gardner used to say, we're falling into a vivid, continuous waking dream. Short stories, novels, poems are someone else's composition that we play and interpret, and so turn them into dreams of our own.

And in summer, when, if people are lucky, they can take a trip or two, stories help us all travel on foot or horseback, ship or plane, car, or broomstick -- even if we're only just sitting in a chair or lying in a hammock with a book propped up on our chests.

So let me play literary travel agent for your imaginative summer traveling, book by book, and make some recommendations for your summer reading voyages.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.