It’s hot. Have you noticed? Each summer, a new temperature record broken. Each spring we celebrate a heatwave. Each winter seems to be less chilly than the one before. Perhaps you’re loving it, reading this sitting in a park in a bikini, factor 30 nearby. Or maybe it’s introducing a sense of existential unease. Either way, it’s not uncommon for the mercury to reach the mid-30s in a modern British summer.
If you’re baffled by it, then there are books to help. From environmentalists who can unpick the impact humankind has had on our weather, to fiction writers who spin sweltering temperatures into a plot device and character all in one. All of them offer that much-needed opportunity in days like these: to sit somewhere shady, and read.
Recent years have seen an explosion in non-fiction about climate change. Which means there’s plenty to read if you’re keen understand some of the science and history behind these newly tropical summers and even find hope in what changes can and are being made to try and halt them.
Instead, the heavy summers endured in other places, at other times, may put the one you’re going through into context. Take, for instance, the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird: Maycomb, where, we learn on the first page, “Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning”. “Somehow,” Harper Lee tells her millions of readers, “it was hotter then.” In similar geographical territory lies Carson McCullers’ novels, which are also set in the American Deep South and in the dry, desultory summers in which malaise strikes her characters. Start with The Member of the Wedding, and you’ll find yourself thankful that you’re old enough to be a master of your own sweaty destiny.
Closer to home, the great British summer – garden parties, festivals, picnics under cloudless skies – has been a feature of literature for centuries. And while we don’t know if those fictional days reached the towering temperatures of the high-30s, that doesn’t mean its characters didn’t get hot under the collar. Ian McEwan deploys heat to devastating effect in Atonement, where the events of a few days trigger an aftermath that lasts for decades. In NW, Zadie Smith perfectly captures the slight mania that arrives in the streets of London with searing temperatures.
If it’s frankly too hot to concentrate on anything longer than a few choice paragraphs, then why not turn to poetry? Those perfectly poised stanzas can be as ephemeral and lovely as cubes of ice in a glass slick with condensation. Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Meena Alexander are among those poets who turn the deadening heat of summer into something beautiful and multi-layered, while John Clare and Shakespeare have addressed the matter in sonnets. Succinct, sweet and otherworldly: a bit like a heatwave.