Photographers from The New York Times visited beaches, parks and cafes to capture readers indulging in a timeless pleasure.
Enjoying a book alfresco is one of summer’s simple, iconic joys, right up there with running through a sprinkler, spotting the evening’s first firefly or scraping a flat wooden spoon across a freezer-burned cup of Italian ice.
This year the practice has been complicated by sweltering, record-breaking heat, leaving many of us with the sense of reading inside a toaster oven. It’s hard to concentrate on a novel when your back is throwing off as much liquid as Niagara Falls.
Still, there are few voyeuristic pleasures more satisfying than stepping outside 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 potential 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 sheepishness about your own unhealthy snacks. Luckily there’s no judgment in public displays of literacy — just the casual hand-visor of one book lover saluting another.
So what makes reading in the great outdoors more memorable than cracking a book in the privacy of your own home? Certainly a couch cushion is more comfortable than a headrest made of sand, and you don’t have to keep an eye on the weather or scope out the nearest facilities. Why do we get a sudden rush of peace from flopping down on a hot park bench, a splintery deck or a dandelion-dotted lawn with a paperback in hand? Why do we subject our backs to the unforgiving bark of a tree?
The answers depend on a Choose Your Own Adventure of tiny decisions: Beach towel or chair? Barefoot or flip-flops? Sunglasses or baseball cap? Picnic basket or measly plum? Do you read with earbuds or trust the birds and the ice cream truck to provide your soundtrack? Most importantly, what book did you bring along for company? Will it energize you for a round of paddle ball or provide a prelude to a long summer’s nap?
There are only a handful of non-negotiables when it comes to plein-air reading: sunscreen, hydration, repeat. You don’t want to stand up and see stars — those who belong between the covers. Also, the polite reader leaves speakers at home. Nobody wants to hear your Jimmy Buffett playlist, even in Key West.
This summer, The New York Times sent photographers to beaches, parks, courtyards and cafes across the country — from New York City to Minneapolis to Seattle — to document our intrepid tradition of enjoying words and nature at the same time. Their pictures are a reminder of the magnificence and magic of this combination.
Produced by Rebecca Halleck