Filled with road trips, beachy weekends, and backyard barbecues, summer has always been one of my favorite times of year, (second only to autumn, if I’m being honest.) And with the added bonus of plenty of extra hours of daylight coming your way, you’ll have all kinds of time free for kicking back with some of the greatest summer books of all time. Now, if you’re anything like me, there is always a stack (a really, really tall one) of just-published titles on your TBR shelf — but despite that almost-irresistible siren song of brand new books, chances are you probably also have a handful of books you just have to re-read every summer: maybe you dive back into the Harry Potter series, bury yourself in a pile of your most-loved romance reads, while the days away with graphic novels, or revisit a few of those literary classics you just can’t get enough of.
Whether you’re curling up alongside a campfire, stretching out for some sun and sand, or flipping pages from the shotgun seat of your BFF’s car, summer is definitely the season for reuniting with your favorite reads. Here are 14 of the best summer reads of all time, to get you started.
'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
I love a good summertime (or really, anytime) road trip, and this semi-autobiographical tale follows Sal Paradise (based on Jack Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they wander haphazardly around the United States in true Beat Generation-fashion (characters representing writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs make cameo appearances, too.) While some of their decisions make the stereotypical frat boys of your college days look a lot saintlier, they also capture the energy and aimlessness of the best summers. Searching for love, adventure, and the meaning of life, the boys of On The Road travel from San Francisco to New York City, and everywhere in between.
'Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail' by Cheryl Strayed
Adventurers everywhere have found themselves worshiping at the literary alter of Cheryl Strayed ever since Wild landed on bookstore shelves — especially those adventurers of the solo-female-traveler ken. A savvy and resilient narrator, Strayed, will inspire you to venture to the edge of your comfort zone and beyond. A memoir I love to revisit every summer (especially if I’m about to hit the trail myself) the messages in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, never get old.
'A Ring of Endless Light' by Madeleine L'Engle
This YA novel is seriously just everything — and since my own YA days, it’s accompanied me though many a life-changing summer of my own. Vicky Austin is spending the summer on Seven Bay Island, where her grandfather is dying of leukemia. Looking for an escape from the pain of watching her grandfather suffer, Vicky becomes involved with a young marine biologist, Adam Eddington, who enlists her help researching local dolphins. Romance, dolphins, and one unbelievable summer make A Ring of Endless Light a must-read.
'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel
I am completely obsessed with this novel about a shipwrecked boy stranded in a lifeboat with an angry tiger, and I still try to read it every summer — both for the amazing story and the utterly gorgeous writing. Yann Martel’s surprising and mesmerizing novel, Life of Pi, is about one young man’s struggle with himself, his own strength, and the difficult decisions he is forced to make in order to survive an impossible situation.
'Zami: A New Spelling of My Name' by Audre Lorde
I love reading memoirs and biographies during the summer, when I have plenty of time for getting lost in someone else's life and experiences — and as far as bios go, this is one of the best. Written with amazing poetic style and musicality, the autobiography of African American poet Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, takes readers though the experiences of Lorde’s family's immigration to New York and the poet’s own coming-of-age story and artistic development — paralleling Lorde’s journey with history, myth, and the narratives of the powerful, black, queer, and other women who inspired her and informed her own growth. This is masterful storytelling.
'East of Eden' by John Steinbeck
Another classic read that should definitely make your summertime TBR pile, East of Eden will take you into John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley landscape during the heat of the American Dust Bowl. An epic family drama, this novel introduces readers to the Trasks and the Hamiltons, two families who are destined to re-live the Biblical tragedies of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, generation after generation. But if you’re concerned about heavy-handed religious messages messing with your chill summer vibes, don’t be. This is an engrossing novel that you will become utterly lost in, filled with unforgettable imagery and subtle symbolism.
'Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga' by Hunter S. Thompson
From road-greased blue jeans, revving motorcycle engines, and drunken rumbles, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga grabs you from the very first image and pulls you into a would you probably never thought you’d witness: that of the largest and most notorious biker gang in the world. Filled with the allure of the road less traveled, and plenty of horrors, Thompson’s intensely researched text puts you into the Hell’s Angels’ minds and onto the back of their bikes, for a terrifying, unbelievable, and unforgettable ride.
'Prodigal Summer' by Barbara Kingsolver
IMO, all of Barbara Kingsolver’s books make perfect summer reads, but Prodigal Summer is definitely one of my faves. The novel will take you to the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding farmland, weaving together three different stories: Deanna Wolfe lives an isolated life as a biologist, high in the mountains; Lusa Maluf Landowski was a scholar before she became the young, unlikely wife of a farmer; and Garnett Walker and Nannie Land Rawley are in a fight to the death over the use of pesticides on their adjoining farmland. Throughout one summer all of these characters encounter one another, building surprising relationships that will move their lives forward in ways they never could have expected.
'Vanity Fair' by William Makepeace Thackeray
Satirizing early 19th-century British society and often called “the novel without a hero”, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair follows the lives of Becky Sharp, Emmy Sedley, and their friends and family — via a notoriously unreliable narrator. This novel is filled with gossip, cunning and complex characters, romance, arrogance, tragedy, social climbing, wars and births and marriages and deaths, and more — all the makings of an unforgettable (and re-readable) story.
'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a summertime must-read, in part because it is so long, complex, deep, and absorbing that you need the uninterrupted heat of summer in order to really experience this novel in its fullest. In a nutshell, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the Buendía family, who founded the idyllic town of Macondo in Colombia, and were subsequently plagued by misfortune, bad luck, disaster, and hauntings — and it’s classic, global literature at its best.
'Bad Behavior' by Mary Gaitskill
If you’re going to engage in some stereotypically “bad behavior” then summer is the optimum time to do it, and the aggressive shock value of Mary Gaitskill’s short stories in Bad Behavior might be just the thing to get you started. Dizzying, jarring, and at times bordering on X-rated (or barreling right on through), the stories in this collection are messy and memorable, featuring women who are sometimes rebellious and sometimes weak, sometimes searching and other times vapid, and who as a whole are not at all interested in being anyone’s “nice girl."
'High Fidelity' by Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is a writer who will take you from laughing to crying and back again, sometimes in the span of just a few lines — exactly the kind of emotional journey you want in your summer reading list. High Fidelity takes readers into the life (and tumultuous, oft-underwhelming loves) of music aficionado and failing English record store (Championship Vinyl) owner Rob Fleming — a character neurotic, compulsive, and who cannot possibly spend his life with someone who has a bad record collection. Or can he?
'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' by Milan Kundera
This one is just so good — sometimes re-reading just once a year isn’t enough. Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, will transport you into the lives (and most private of thoughts) of two couples living in Soviet-occupied Prague, during the late 1960’s — filled with betrayals, broken hearts, art and culture, and intellectual life lived beneath a repressive government, this novel explores the significance humans attribute to coincidence, and the internal struggle between meaning and meaninglessness.