Long before there were summer blockbusters or huge concerts in Chicago, there was summer reading. The rich and titled sat – no, reclined – on their estates, scanning John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and trying to look like they weren’t checking out the hired help. Not much has changed – summer after summer, a desperate push is made to read all the stuff you didn’t have time to read during classes, all the while fighting distractions like barbecues and pesky movie sequels. Here are a few to check out, providing you can tear your eyes away from “the help.”

Brian Merlos
A literary creature in his natural habitat, the Diag. (CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN/Daily)

Grendel by John Gardner: An astonishingly thoughtful and even terrifying novel, “Grendel” aims directly at society’s heart and is unforgivingly harsh. The book is based on the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, and the story is familiar to most of the English-speaking world: A terrible monster terrorizes an ancient village in Sweden before being taken down, mano-a-mano, by the hero, Beowulf. Except, in Gardner’s version, the monster thinks, too. His thoughts are at once fascinating and horrifying, the very thoughts that play around the edges of our fears. It’s the perfect length for a novel that’s largely based on philosophy – at 192 pages, long enough to be effective, but not so long that it drags. Feel smart again: Read “Grendel.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: From the dubious title, it’s hard to tell what a powerfully emotional book this is. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a light read in that it moves quickly, but heavy in its themes and its sense of philosophy. Henry DeTamble is stricken with a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily snap between different times of his life, and his lover, Clare, struggles to live in a world plagued by uncertainty. From her first meeting with Henry as a six-year-old girl (Henry is in his 30s and has known her for years), Clare loves a man who is always disappearing. The novel is touching without being too sappy, tragic while somehow uplifting and never irritating for its strange, sci-fi premise. And, honestly, it’s a lot less trouble than Charlotte Bronte.

River Town by Peter Hessler: As every good B-School student knows, “China and India are taking over the world, and we better get ready!” If you haven’t heard that enough, you will have soon. “River Town” is a book that explains modern-day China far better than any economic or history text, as well as an extremely interesting travel narrative. A nonfiction memoir of Mr. Hessler’s two years teaching in a relatively small city in China, the clear, insightful, writing brilliantly explains just why China is so important and its people so intriguing. Hessler, as a Peace Corps volunteer, gets a point of view few of us are lucky enough to experience, and by sharing it, gives readers the next-best solution to actually being there.

Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert: Relatively unknown even to irritatingly vocal intellectuals, Jack Gilbert is nonetheless one of the best poets of the age. Even for someone with no background in poetry or analysis at all, Gilbert is understandable and fascinating. His poems are staggeringly personal, somehow touching both author and reader. Subjects range from the feeling of Greece in the darkness to longing after a faraway lover, all written crisply and concisely, with hardly a hint of the frustrating ambiguity so common to poetry. A touch of death, the silence of night, the closeness of Paris – what Gilbert writes is clear, crisp, and eminently intelligent. If you want a new way of looking at the world, this is it.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris: Written on a small pamphlet tucked away in author David Sedaris’ drawer at a high-end Asian hotel, several warnings detailed how to act in given situations. One, of course, was the cautionary advice for “When you are engulfed in flames” and serves as the title for his newest book. Whether you know his name or not, Sedaris is a fundamental part of our culture’s contemporary humor, and the humorous vignettes that make up the book are accordingly close to home. They’re all the funnier for that: language troubles, his partner Hugh and the strange misadventures of an expanding society all feature. Irreverent and matter-of-factly funny, Sedaris’ jokes are especially good for summer parties.

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