A Folger Summer Reading List

We added a lemon to make it feel like summertime.

The summer of 2020 has flown by, and for many of us, it has offered few of the pleasures we typically associate with the season. Thankfully, there’s always summer reading.

We reached out to some of our friends, colleagues, and partners to see what books are currently on their bookshelves and bedside tables. Their recommendations include thought-provoking non-fiction, exciting novels old and new, poetry, plays, and more—after all, isn’t a beach read just whatever you’re reading on the beach? If you’re looking to recapture a little bit of that summer feeling before Labor Day rolls around, try one of the recommendations below.

What books have you enjoyed this summer? What books do you have left on your reading list? Tell us in the comments!

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

“I recommend Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Set between the 1950s and 1990s, it tells the story of the Vignes sisters, identical twins from a small Black community in the Deep South who run away to New Orleans at sixteen, only to part ways later, with one sister returning home with a daughter and the other secretly passing as white. I love the poetic, riveting narrative, and the way it shows how identity is both a necessary performance—everything is a choice—and a strange costume thrust upon you by the world.”

– Surekha Davies, cultural historian. She was a 2017 – 18 Mellon Research Fellow at the Folger and is currently a research fellow at Utrecht University. 

⇒ Related: Surekha Davies talks about her research on cabinets of curiosity from Shakespeare’s time.

“Inheritance” by Taylor Johnson (available November 2020)

Inheritance by Taylor Johnson

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“Language, voice, these are the things that make a poetry book memorable, and there is all of that and more in Taylor Johnson’s Inheritance (available from Alice James Books in November 2020). Johnson’s language is sure-footed, precise, questioning, and strongly evocative of place (including their hometown of Washington DC). This is a career I look forward to following.

“Just in time for summer, Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is keeping me excited and intrigued with each chapter. As a fan of gothic literature, I love this dive into Mexican history and culture from the early part of the last century. I also love a smart and able heroine who drives the plot forward with her witty repartee and fearlessness. I can’t wait to dive back in!”

– Teri Cross Davis, poet and the coordinator of the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series. She is the 2020 winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. 

Photograph of Librarian and Morgan Library Director Belle Da Costa Greene
Librarian and Morgan Library Director Belle Da Costa Greene

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone

“I have just started An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone. It is a biography of the librarian hired by J.P. Morgan in 1905 to arrange and describe his collections, who rose to become one of the most well-known, respected, and admired collectors in the rare book and manuscript world of the early 20th century. She, more than anyone after Morgan himself, shaped the library’s collections, and eventually became the first director of the Morgan Library.

“I’m reading this with a few other rare book librarians, and am enjoying it because the role that women played in building the research collections of major US special collections libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is not as well known as it should be. A lot of the early male directors or collectors get credit for establishing these collections, but many utilized the skills of expert women librarians to acquire, arrange, and describe. Belle da Costa Greene was undoubtedly one of the best of such librarians, and even more remarkable as she was a Black woman who was forced to hide her identity (changing her surname and adding a fictitious Portuguese grandmother) in order to achieve what she did.”

– Beth DeBold, Assistant Curator of Collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library

“Black and British: A Forgotten History,” by David Olusoga

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

“This summer I am reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. This book is an attempt to demonstrate that Black people are indeed part of the fabric of British history. Period dramas, history books and the school curriculum have erased the stories of Black people and the role Britain played in the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is a fascinating and essential read for all people, not just those interested in Black history, because it is also a stark reminder of the role of history in shaping our prejudices, assumptions, and identities.”

– Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe and Vice President of the Shakespeare Association of America

⇒ Related: Listen to Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern discuss the sights, sounds, smells, and special effects Shakespeare’s audiences would have encountered in an Elizabethan playhouse on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani

“Right now, I’m making my way through an Oxford World’s Classics translation Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I found a few weeks ago. So far, I’ve learned. . .  that the gods are kind of jerks. Much more fun was the book I finished in July, G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr. In Desani’s hilarious book, Hatterr, a biracial Indian man, visits seven great sages. Then, he goes on a series of wacky adventures (featuring lions, treasure hunts, con-men, gurus, loan sharks, and more) in which he entirely fails to follow the sages’ advice. Hatterr’s discursive narration, playful use of language, and philosophical flights aren’t always easy to follow, but that’s what makes the novel so fun to spend a long summer’s afternoon with. For Shakespeare-lovers, Hatterr is chock-a-block with references to the Bard. The introduction remixes the first scene from Hamlet, Hatterr’s faithful friend Banerrji is always quoting Shakespeare, and Hatterr himself chafes against the playwright’s legacy: ‘I tell you man, I have seen more Life than Shakespeare! Things happen to me with accents on ’em!’ They sure do.”

– Ben Lauer, Social Media and Communications Manager at the Folger

“Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” by P. Carl

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown

Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition by P. Carl

“Two of my favorite summer reads have been Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, by adrienne maree brown, and Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition, by P. Carl. As an artist-activist, I resonate deeply with the questions brown posits in Pleasure Activism. How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? How can we awaken within ourselves desires that make it impossible to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life?

“I first met P. Carl in 2009 when working at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and have been a fan of his ever since. Becoming a Man is a raw, passionate, and striking memoir of P. Carl’s 50-year journey to become the man he always knew himself to be.”

Amrita Ramanan, Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Station 11” by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“I just finished reading Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. After a global pandemic leaves behind a collapsed dystopian society, the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians, tour the Great Lakes region performing classical music and Shakespearean plays to scattered communities of survivors. A beautifully eerie novel about the uplifting nature of art.”

– Lindsey Schmeltzer, Education Director at the Livermore Shakespeare Festival.

⇒ Related: Listen to Emily St. John Mandel read from Station Eleven at the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award Ceremony.

“Driftless” by David Rhodes

Driftless by David Rhodes

“Sometimes I’m afraid to re-read a novel I loved years ago, in case my earlier enthusiasm might appear to have been misplaced; but I thoroughly agreed with my younger self’s fervent admiration for Driftless, by David Rhodes, a book I happily re-read this summer.  Set in the fictional town of Words, Wisconsin, Driftless is a beautiful, humane portrait of the American Midwest, full of pages to be dog-eared and sentences to be underlined—some more than once.”

– Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement, and other novels

⇒ Related: Listen to our interview with Julie Schumacher about The Shakespeare Requirement on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Gypsies and Flamenco: The Emergence of the Art of Flamenco in Andalusia by Bernard Leblon

“I’m reading Hamlet (yes), because a friend has a theory that Hamlet and Ophelia are actually working together throughout the play to deceive the court about Hamlet’s true intentions. I want to see if I can work that out. The theory does require Ophelia to take Hamlet’s side against her father, as a kind of ongoing confederate. That’s an interesting idea.

“I am also reading Gypsies and Flamenco: The Emergence of the Art of Flamenco in Andalusia, by Bernard Leblon. I really enjoy this music because it is alive and changing, but also because it represents an intertwining of a number of different histories and cultures. Flamenco is musically and historically complex, so it helps to have a guide. I have been listening to flamenco LPs during the pandemic, and this book helps me appreciate what I am hearing. The more I learn about this music, the more I think about the power of music to travel, which must also have been the case in the England Shakespeare grew up in. Some of the song and lyrical traditions that we hear in his plays ended up in North America, and I often wonder if the musical world we hear today in popular song is one he would recognize.”

– Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library

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