Arts and Culture

Book Club: Summer 2022 reading to relax and escape

Top summer books for 2022

Top summer books for 2022

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Book Club

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  • The World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast brings you reading recommendations from two experts.
  • Financial Times Deputy Books Editor Laura Battle gives her tips, and explains the #BookTok social media phenomenon.
  • 'Bibliotherapist' Ella Berthoud suggests summer books to help you escape.
  • Subscribe to the Book Club Podcast here.
  • And get our weekly podcast Radio Davos here.

As summer sizzles in the northern hemisphere, you might be looking for a good book to take on holiday, or to help you travel in your imagination.

Look no further than the World Economic Forum's Book Club Podcast which has an array or recommendations from two expert book-lovers.

And if you get reading tips from social media, you may have been influenced by #BookTok. Financial Times Deputy Books Editor Laura Battle explains what that is, and why the global publishing industry is taking it seriously.

The World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast transcript

Robin Pomeroy: From the World Economic Forum, sitting in for Beatrice Di Caro, I'm Robin Pomeroy, and this is the Book Club podcast. It's summer in the northern hemisphere and so on this episode we're looking at what summer books you might want to pack for your vacation, or reads that could help transport you, perhaps without you even needing to leave home.

And escaping in a good summer book needn't be a guilty pleasure. In the second half of the show, we hear from Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist who uses the power of books to help people through tough times. Ella is co-author of a book called The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies, and she gives us her pick of escapist fiction for the summer.

But first, people increasingly get summer book recommendations from social media, not least TikTok, where the hashtag #BookTok has become so influential that publishers and booksellers are sitting up and paying attention. My colleague Kate Whiting asked Laura Battle, Deputy Books Editor of the Financial Times, about that and about her summer reading recommendations. And Kate started by asking Laura Battle about the rising demand for books.

'There's almost a fetishization of physical books.'

Laura Battle, FT

Laura Battle: I think there's a lot of things going on at once, actually. I think there's almost like the tail-end of the pandemic where people were stuck at home and some people had no time at all, but some people had lots of time to fill. So people were buying more books, whether it was e-books or listening to audiobooks or actual physical books.

Audiobooks continue to be a really big deal. But in terms of physical books and physical bookshops, it's a really interesting one. And I think, weirdly, social media does have a part to play because all over Instagram, BookTok, all sorts of different channels, there's a sort of almost fetishization of the physical books. You know, people share pictures of themselves against their bookshelves. And of course, during the pandemic, we were all in front of our bookshelves, whether they were finely curated or not. So people had an interest in the physicality of books, I think. And that's definitely playing a part.

Have you read?

What impact is BookTok having on publishing?

Kate Whiting: So you mentioned TikTok, and there is this BookTok trend. What exactly is it and what are we seeing?

Laura Battle: BookTok is the sort of literary wing of TikTok. It's the BookTok hashtag, which started like lots of hashtags, a very small, very niche thing. And it really, I think, began in the field of genre fiction. So it was a lot of people, particularly young readers reading young adult fiction, sci-fi, particular genres, where it started to take off.

But within the last year, it's really exploded and is becoming a sort of major influence on book sales, particularly physical book sales. So it's now very mainstream and a lot of publishers, bookshops, people in the industry are desperately trying to get in on it because it has such an influence over book sales.

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For example, the Hay Book Festival announced a partnership, they were their digital media partners. That was announced early this year. One interesting thing is it it's completely unpredictable, really. I mean, all these publishers and bookshops can sort of try and catch the wave, but it's a really unpredictable force. And one of the unpredictable things about it is that, yes, it is important in kickstarting book sales of books that are just coming out, but it's also relaunching books that were published 10 years ago.

There's the really famous example of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, which was published in 2012. And I think it had an initial print run of 20,000 copies. And it was just announced, I think earlier this month, that it's now sold 2 million copies across all formats.

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Kate Whiting: So the back catalogue then is becoming a big thing. And publishers are having to go back and republish these books?

Laura Battle: Yes. And there's been such a focus, I think, in the publishing industry on what is new, churning these new books out. And now they're really having to rethink their back catalogue. And how can they make authors that may be long dead, how can they relaunch this, repackage it and catch that wave?

Kate Whiting: That's fascinating. So it's almost doing what I guess streaming of music has done to the charts, that we see Kate Bush up there, number one, with Running Up That Hill.

Laura Battle: Yes, exactly. The sort of 'classic albums'. It's just how you quite do it because essentially it's word of mouth. I mean, these BookTok videos are just very short videos that just people stream: reactions to books or even the ending of books or they're throwing books across the room. It's a very emotional reaction to books. And it's how you harness that, I suppose, if you were a publisher.

3 summer book recommendations

Kate Whiting: The FT, a couple of weeks ago, published this massive summer reads marquee piece, and there were over 100 titles, and every one of them, I think, really deserved their place. So I'm going to ask you now to really strip down to three or four - they can be non-fiction or fiction titles - that you think everyone should have on their summer reading list this year.

Laura Battle: As Deputy Books Editor, I was in charge of the fiction selection. So I chose, I think, 10 titles. And I tried to choose quite a range of different summer books to suit different tastes. But I can certainly pull out three titles that I think would be great summer reads.

The first recommendation would be Monica Ali's Love Marriage, which is a sprawling book. She was best known for her debut novel, Brick Lane, which came out over a decade ago and nothing she published since had quite lived up to that promise. But I think Love Marriage is a real return to form for her.

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So it's quite an exciting read and it's a sprawling novel, but in the best way. It's got a really loveable cast of characters and it's focussed on two young Londoners called Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster and their extended families. They're a couple that are planning their marriage, and it looks at those issues of matrimony and the weight of different cultural expectations around marriage and looks at relationships more widely.

But it's funny and it's moving and it's written with the lightest of touch. So it's about, I think, over 500 pages, but it really races by. So that's one recommendation of mine.

Another one which is a completely different sort of book called Spies in Canaan by David Park. And this is slim and it's sombre, and it's just a really powerful reflection on American foreign policy, really, but told through the story of this one man. And the novel is narrated by this man, a retired US spy called Michael Miller. And it begins with a really lyrical account of his time spent serving during the fall of Saigon. And then it continues to the present day in the second part of the book, when a mysterious package arrives and he ends up having to completely rethink his time in Vietnam.

So it's a fascinating character study, this theme of innocence lost. But it's also really interesting about the grey areas of morality, whether it's an individual's sense of morality or whether it's a country acting in a way that it believes to be moral.

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Another, again, completely different - a novel called Fight Night by Miriam Toews. And if I describe it as a novel about a trauma experienced by three generations of the same family and told through the letters of the youngest member who's an eight-year-old, I don't think you'd rush to buy it. But I really would urge your listeners to read this book, because it's also one of just the funniest and most irreverent summer books that I've read this year, and life-affirming too, actually, even even though it deals with some really serious subjects.

Swiv, the narrator, the eight-year-old, is just a completely distinctive character, and Toews writes with a real sense of joy, I think. So that would be recommended as well in terms of fiction.

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Kate Whiting: Sounds amazing. I actually have an eight-year-old. It's quite interesting to think of somebody writing from that perspective as well. It can't be easy to do that.

Laura Battle: It's really unusual, I think, to find a child narrator in a novel that is so distinctive and convincing, because it's a really difficult thing to do, I think.

Best non-fiction summer books

Kate Whiting: If we could turn to some non-fiction titles now as well. What have you got on your reading pile this summer?

Laura Battle: I think this the standout non-fiction summer book that I've read, there's a book called Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell, which is a biography of the poet John Donne. And it's a really astonishing book. I think.

Rundell is a fellow of All Souls College, but she's best known as a children's author, until now. But this biography is is an extraordinary portrait of John Donne, who we tend to think of just for his love of poetry. But he was a lawyer and he was an MP. And towards the end of his life, he was a formidable creature as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. So she's really interested in his many selves and also his own creative obsession with the idea of the infinite. And it just feels a completely original biography and really fresh. The writing's so fresh. So I definitely recommend that.

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Kate Whiting: That sounds brilliant. And anything else, non-fiction-wise?

Laura Battle: I recently reviewed three books on farming and the future of food for a books essay in the FT, and it's one of those subjects that intersects with some of the most pressing issues of today, including food shortages, which have come about largely as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also climate change as well.

There are three summer books that I reviewed. The first is called Regenesis by George Monbiot. He's an environmentalist and a vegan activist and he's really saying there is no future for farmers. We all ought to be on plant-based diets, and farming, largely, should be phased out, certainly livestock farming.

And then two summer books coming at it from a slightly different angle. One is called Rooted by Sarah Langford, and another called Land Healer by Jake Fiennes. Sarah Langford is a farmer and Jake Fiennes is a conservationist working at Holkham Estate. And they're both arguing that there is a future for livestock and arable farming, but it's got to be in a much more sustainable way. There is a future for what they call regenerative agriculture.

Kate Whiting: Coming to podcasts now, are there any particular podcasts that you would recommend our listeners tune into?

Laura Battle: I would definitely encourage them to tune into the FT Weekend podcast and actually we've just done a recording. Fred Studemann, who's the Literary Editor here, and I'm Deputy Books Editor, we've just done a recording with Lilah Raptopoulos, who presents that podcast about summer reads, and she's also joined by Raphael Abraham, who's the Deputy Arts Editor, and he's a real film buff. He went to Cannes earlier this year, and he's got his film choices for the summer.

Bibliotherapy and why reading is good for you

Robin Pomeroy: That was the Financial Times's Laura Battle picking her summer reading from books recently published. But what if you're looking for sheer escapism? Here's Ella Berthoud, bibliotherapist and co-author of The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies.

Kate Whiting: In the last couple of years we've been through a pandemic. Have you seen people turning more to summer books? And we're still in a very uncertain time at the moment. Is that something that people are increasingly doing, trying to seek solace?

Ella Berthoud: Yes, very much so. I have seen a lot more bibliotherapy clients coming from all over the world seeking solace in books. Obviously, when we had a lockdown, there wasn't a lot to do so people did turn to books often in that instance. But also since we've been allowed out again, people have been carrying on reading and I've actually had a lot of people who are very aware that their mental health has been vastly improved by reading books. And people have become much more conscious of that now, I think as well.

So I've been going to companies and bringing bibliotherapy to different groups of people, from the NHS [UK National Health Service], care workers, all kinds of people, people at the big companies like BP, Barclays. Everyone's realising that different types of wellness are going to help them. And bibliotherapy's a really obvious and great direction to go. And it's cheap!

'People are very aware that their mental health has been vastly improved by reading books.'

Ella Berthoud, Bibliotherapist

Kate Whiting: What is it about the act of reading then that helps people?

Ella Berthoud: Reading itself has been proven by neuroscientists to calm down the body and the brain. So people have observed the brain while reading and seen that your brain waves actually slow down, your breathing slows down, your pulse slows down, if you're reading a book that transports you. So it's got to be fiction. Non-fiction doesn't have the same effect. It's got to be something that you lose yourself in. So that's why escapist reading is so important. And it just takes people out of their daily circumstances, allows them to live different lives.

And also, by reading a novel, you actually enter into someone else's heart and soul and mind and being, and you live their life effectively. And that is incredibly calming and relaxing, getting into someone else's brain. And it's also cathartic, which is what the ancient Greeks understood about art and drama, that by going through these strong emotions via someone else, via fiction, it's a way of exorcising your own pain and grief and difficulties. And, you know, it doesn't also have to be negative emotions. It can be positive emotions as well that you're experiencing through other people. So it's an opportunity to live other lives.

Kate Whiting: And that must help with empathy, I imagine, that you are actually standing in someone else's shoes while you're reading about them.

Ella Berthoud: Absolutely. So that's one of the main reasons why reading fiction is so important and so brilliant is that it's an opportunity to empathise with other people in different cultures, different ways of looking at the world, going back into history, going forward, into the future.

And it's incredibly important for children to read fiction for that very reason so that they can empathise with other people around the world, but also for adults, because adults tend to quite often think, 'Oh, I should only read in order to educate myself, or to learn more about the world through non-fiction'. But actually, if you read fiction, then you empathise much more with the people and learn more about the places that they are, the circumstances that they're in, than you would by just reading non-fiction.

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Kate Whiting: So this episode of the podcast is obviously focusing on summer reading, but because it's the World Economic Forum, only half of the world is currently in summer, only those in the northern hemisphere. But I imagine that a lot of people listening will relate to what you've been saying and will want to find some reading material that can help them escape and actually calm them down. So I'd be really interested to hear what your recommendations are for escapist reading.

Best summer books for escapism

Ella Berthoud: Excellent. So I've got a really nice selection. I hope.

One of my favourite summer reads, which is great for escapism, is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which is a really fabulous book set in the 1960s in America about a woman who's a chemist who is superseded by all her male peers because they take all the glory for the work she's actually doing herself. She then loses her job and becomes, kind of by accident, a TV chef, and she uses her chemistry skills to be a brilliant chef. And it's just a hilarious, sassy, brilliantly written, really lovely novel, very quirky, very unusual. And there's also an amazing dog in the book called Six-thirty. It was one of the best canine characters that I've ever read. So that's a really fun, enjoyable, in a way, light read. But it also has a lot of profound, interesting topics at its heart, of feminism and male patriarchy.

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Then I would also massively recommend, another great escapist read is a book by Louisa Young called Twelve Months and a Day, which is all about two people that at the very beginning of the book die, leaving their partners behind. The two that have died are called Rasmus and Roisin, I think they're the ones that die. And Nico and Jay are the ones that are left. And you experience the story through the viewpoint of the ghosts and also through the people that are left behind. And it's a really romantic love story. Very unusual. It's not a ghost story per se, but it's a romance story about how these two people in their thirties accidentally died and how they mourn the people that they left behind by dying. And of course, the ones that are left behind are mourning their dead partners. And the ghosts try to manipulate the lives of the people left behind, for the good. And it's a really touching, really romantic, really lovely story set in the present day. And Louisa Young is really fabulous writer who has written lots of other fantastic summer books too. You know, you're in good hands with her.

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Kate Whiting: Is it heartbreaking or is life-affirming?

Ella Berthoud: Both. So it starts off being heartbreaking when they die for very unlucky reasons, but then it becomes more and more life-affirming as the book goes on, as you see the two characters who are left behind continuing with their lives and coming to terms with what's happened and forming new relationships, without giving away what happens. It's actually a very life-affirming book. So that's a top tip. I think it's a brilliant, really lovely summer read. And it's also set partly in London and partly in Scotland. It's got really great settings.

Then another that I would very much recommend as a great summer read is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, which is an amazingly life-affirming book about a female pilot, an aviatrix, who has all sorts of adventures leading up to a massive journey that she does around the world, hence the name Great Circle, that she's trying to fly around the world.

And it's loosely based on stories of real aviatrices, such as Amelia Earhart. So there's quite a lot in common with her story. The heroine, who is the female pilot, is a really great, sassy character who's incredibly cool, and it's about her love life, how she comes to be a female pilot, also her relationship with her twin brother, and then how she ends up going on this smart adventure with her co-pilots around the world. And she does disappear, and we won't tell you what happens. But then also there's a 2015 parallel aspect of the book where there's a Hollywood actor trying to act the part of this female pilot. So we sort of get flipping back and forth and it's a it's a pretty great adventure story.

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Kate Whiting: As the reader, do you get to travel with her around the world as well?

Ella Berthoud: Very much so. A lot of it stays in Maine, in America, to start with. And then you travel around the world with her. So you have lots of adventures along with her. So that is a great summer read for people that might not be able to travel during the summer.

And then another one, which is a lovely summer read too, which is more of a kind of gentle summer read, in a way, is a book called The Water Garden by Louise Soraya Black, which is set in the UK near a really beautiful reservoir lake, hence the water garden. And it's about a woman in her thirties who is stuck at home with her young children. And she's quite bored. And then she meets this teenager, Finn, who seems to be a little bit feckless, and she starts an interesting and complex relationship with this teenager. And there's also a drowned boy who drowned in the reservoir in the past. So it's a very summery book because it's all set in this beautiful, lovely water garden. But it's also got lots of looking back into the past and a bit of going to Italy. There's a sort of Italian aspect of the novel as well, going back into some of the history of the characters in the novel. And it's a very intense, very passionate novel, which is very beautiful and very summery and very evocative of place.

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Kate Whiting: So if you had to take just one of those, if you only had space in your suitcase for one of those summer books, which would it be?

Ella Berthoud: Oh, that's really tricky. But I'd probably go for Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead because it's a big fat book. It's actually about 800 pages, so you'd know that it would keep you going for the whole of your holiday. And it's quite a saga. It takes you over 30 years of the heroine's life, so you get completely swept up in her whole existence.

Robin Pomeroy: Ella Berthoud. Her book is called The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies. Before that, you heard Laura Battle, Deputy Books Editor for the Financial Times. Both were speaking to Kate Whiting. Please subscribe to the World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast and give us a rating and review wherever it is you get your podcast. Don't forget to join the Book Club on Facebook. It's coming up on 200,000 members. And to discuss podcasts, please join the World Economic Forum Podcast Club, also on Facebook. And please search out all our sister podcasts, Radio Davos, Meet the Leader and Agenda Dialogues, wherever you get your podcasts.

Sitting in for Beatrice Di Caro, this episode was presented by me, Robin Pomeroy Interviews by Kate Whiting. Studio production was by Gareth Nolan. We'll be back soon, but for now, thank you for listening and goodbye.

A version of this podcast was also published on Radio Davos:

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