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How summer reading flipped me from my hammock and changed my life

I'll read this summer for moments of revelation. The summer before college, I confirmed my major by reading Russell Baker's "Growing up." Later, Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," told me that a wise life could be made beyond the Washington Beltway.

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Summer is a time when we often seek out books that will charm or entertain us – something sunny to be savored from a hammock or beach chair.

But can summer reading touch us more deeply, changing us in ways that linger long after vacation season is over?

That question came to mind the other day when I retrieved from my shelf a copy of "Growing Up," the celebrated childhood memoir by retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker.

Published in 1982, Mr. Baker's book first fell into my hands during my summer between high school and college. I'd registered as a journalism major, although I'd become aware of the pecking order that usually separated newspaper folk from those writers who were regarded as real men and women of letters.

In "Growing Up," the unrepentant newshound Baker achieved a Proustian accomplishment, enthralling me and thousands of other readers with flawless prose that elegantly evoked his past. "Growing Up" taught me that journalists could – and should – aspire to the highest standards of expression, an ideal I've struggled to meet ever since.

Baker's book moved me so strongly that I quickly mailed a copy to my best friend, assured that she'd be altered as indelibly as I was. But aside from polite thanks, she never mentioned Baker's memoir again, which taught me another important lesson.

The love of a book, like any great romance, depends on a peculiar chemistry between souls that's hard to quantify and even harder to predict. That's the essential mystery of reading, that we never quite know when the magic will strike.

Fetching Baker's book from the shelf the other day, I thought of other summer books that had shaken me awake to some new and inescapable reality.

Beyond beach reads

After I read it during a summer road trip, Walker Percy's "Lost in The Cosmos" – a philosophical rumination that wryly mimics a self-help book – dispelled the smug certitude I'd cultivated as a 20-year-old, revealing a world so complex that I'm still trying to figure it out.


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