While some people hail fall for the return of their favorite TV shows, and others look forward to the kickoff of football season or the first pages of the September issue, for me, fall is the best time of year to be a reader. Some might mistake the time period between popular summer reading on one end and holiday gift compilations on the other as a lull, but the months leading up to the end of the year are, in fact, a haven of book festivals, author readings, and the most anticipated new releases of the year.
The logic goes that the book publishing industry releases the best books of the year in the months leading up to Christmas, so as to leave time for book reviews to circulate, word of mouth to spread, and literary events to familiarize authors with their readers. As with other retail outlets, the holiday season is the most profitable time of year for book sellers, so the months leading up to it are crucial for books to gain the necessary recognition for moving a lot of inventory late in the year. Some readers will even do their holiday shopping months in advance after hearing a famous author read and sign their books, for the cache of meeting their favorites in person.
After a season of summer blockbusters and lighter, more plot-oriented fare in TV and beach reads, there's a seasonal turn in the fall toward more serious, challenging material. We're rested and hungry again for heavier stuff.
In response, bookstores stack their reading series with the newest and best, stocking shelves with this season's most anticipated titles and filling festivals with prize-winning authors and panels. Catalogs advertise famous names and hot new up-and-comers. Publishers lock and load for a blitz of publicity, each week firing off book reviews, author events and yet more good reads, spreading the kind of energy contagious on the first crisp days of fall.
For me, when I think back on previous autumns, I distinguish them by the new hardcover I was toting around in my bag, my calendar bookmarked with book festivals and author readings, my podcasts chock-full of author interviews. I recall these authors with fondness, their names shifting with the changing of the seasons, and lending each fall their own distinct flavor.
Last fall, it was Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her, and Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior. Too serious for beach reads, these are the sort of novels and stories you can sink your teeth into. They possess imperfect characters that compel us in interesting, complicated ways.
Two years ago, it was Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, and Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table. That year felt like one extended love story, the authors in dialogue with each other in my mind, moving seamlessly between narratives of baseball, homeland, and semiotics. The love stories in each, while very different from each other, quilted the works together to form a coherent narrative of that year's fall season.
The ideal fall book is substantive and guided by a strong authorial voice. Its sentences sing with metaphors and lyrical language. Its characters stand out for their distinctive qualities, their instant familiarity, this sense that you've known them all your reading lives. The landscape acts not merely as backdrop but as a rich and complicated world. The story is indelible.
It's a tall order, but every year, contemporary fiction delivers, sending up great read after read.
And, it's a gift, to have the pages of my days authored by such luminous literary voices, their images and story-lines filtering through my dreams. It's the time of year when I go under the spell of really good prose and don't emerge for months, the perfect excuse to stay in and curl up on the couch. These stories you inhabit as your own, and it's compelling to be able to talk about new developments with other like-minded readers transfixed by the same charm at the same moment, right as they're released.
These and myriad others this season are the books people will be talking about at Christmas parties, the ones that will populate best-of-the-year lists come December. These are the authors -- old and new -- on which publishing houses are doubling down. Some of these must-haves stick around as classics and others you file away. But you remember the excitement they generated from partaking in something at the onset. Of being in on the wave of that particular cultural conversation.
I cling to the end of summer with everything I have, but I know, and relish, that beginning in the fall, I will be in some fantastic fictional company.