New York Times photographers visited beaches, parks and cafes to capture readers indulging in timeless pleasure.
Enjoying a book outdoors is one of the simple and iconic joys of summer, like running through a sprinkler, spotting the first firefly of the evening, or scraping a flat wooden spoon over a cup of burnt Italian ice. through the freezer.
This year, the practice has been complicated by sweltering, record-breaking heat, leaving many of us feeling like we’re reading inside a toaster oven. It’s hard to focus on a novel when your back is spitting out as much liquid as Niagara Falls.
Still, there are few voyeuristic pleasures more satisfying than going out and spotting someone lost in a book. You have the thrill of recognizing a kindred spirit, the impromptu eye test of deciphering a title from afar, plus the possibility of having a new mystery, biography, memoir or graphic novel to add to your own list. It’s like getting menu ideas from a stranger’s shopping cart, minus the shame of your own unhealthy snacks. Thankfully, there’s no judgment in public literacy demonstrations — just the laid-back visor of one book lover greeting another.
So what makes outdoor reading more memorable than reading a book in the privacy of your own home? Granted, a sofa cushion is more comfortable than a sand headrest, and you don’t have to watch the weather or search for the nearest facilities. Why do we get a sudden sense of peace when we slouch on a warm park bench, a shattered deck, or a dandelion-strewn lawn with a paperback book in hand? Why do we subject our backs to the merciless bark of a tree?
The answers depend on a Choose your own adventure of small decisions: Beach towel or chair? Bare feet or flip flops? Sunglasses or baseball cap? Picnic basket or shabby plum? Do you read with headphones or trust the birds and the ice cream truck to provide your soundtrack? More importantly, what book did you bring for the company? Will it energize you for a game of paddle ball or serve as a prelude to a long summer siesta?
There are only a handful of non-negotiables when it comes to reading outdoors: sunscreen, hydration, repetition. You don’t want to get up and see stars – those belong between the covers. Plus, the polished drive leaves the speakers at home. No one wants to hear your Jimmy Buffett playlist, even in Key West.
This summer, The New York Times sent photographers to beaches, parks, backyards and cafes across the country – from New York to Minneapolis to Seattle – to document our fearless tradition of enjoying words and nature at the same time. Their photos recall the magnificence and magic of this combination.
Produced by Rebecca Halleck