Words at Play

Summer Reading Picks from M-W Staffers

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Last Updated: 13 Apr 2022


Summer is fast approaching, which means one thing: it's about time to start reading outdoors. (Or, if you're like us, reading somewhere that's somewhat sunlight-adjacent.) We're a company of readers here at Merriam-Webster, so we asked around about the books our staffers are currently enjoying, what they're looking forward to, and what they think you'll love too. Happy reading!


Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
I've just started Seamus Heaney's verse translation of Beowulf, published in 2000. Since Beowulf itself was composed more than a thousand years ago I don't feel like taking almost 20 years to get around to it is too bad. I'm currently most of the way through the introduction, and already Heaney has sent me to my Merriam-Webster app a number of times, where I've learned that tumulus refers to an ancient grave and hoplite to a heavily armed infantry soldier of ancient Greece. The more you know.

Race Me in a Lobster Suit by Kelly Mahon
Balancing out the Old English with some new English, I've got Kelly Mahon's Race Me in a Lobster Suit, which had me stifling laughs in my local bookstore. I have a feeling it's not all family-friendly, but my 8 year-old son thought the first chapter—which is, appropriately, about the author hiring someone to race her while they're both impersonating lobsters—was very funny.

Women and Dictionary Making by Lindsay Rose Russell
I'm very excited to have in my hands a copy of Lindsay Rose Russell's Women and Dictionary Making: Gender, Genre, and English Language Lexicography, which was published last year. The book traces the various roles women have had in lexicography—as "patrons, collaborators, readers, compilers, and critics," as the publisher puts it—throughout the history of lexicography. Yes, summer reading as busman's holiday is pretty much my style.

I don't expect to make it through all of the above by summer's end, but I have a bit more hope for the two audiobooks I've selected: reviewers are praising Helen Oyeyemi's Gingerbread, with mentions of magical realism and mischief catching my attention in particular, and Stephen Greenblatt's Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics sounds like a fascinating look at Shakespeare's various tyrants.


The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
I will always recommend this book to word lovers. Mark Forsyth takes readers on a journey through the histories of words whose origins you'd never guess. It's educational and entertaining and you can finish it in a weekend.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This book is as much about being a mother as it is about class, race, and privilege. And it's not just about one kind of mother. Celeste Ng takes a look at the choices we might be forced to make as a single mother, an immigrant mother, an adoptive mother, or a wealthy mother, and how those choices are scrutinized by society.

My Life as a Bench by Jaq Hazell
I enjoyed the way this book was written maybe more than I enjoyed the story itself. Jaq Hazell writes the story from the perspective of a dead girl stuck in a memorial bench, trying to work out what happened at the end of her life. She writes in a way that really gives you a sense of what it might feel like to be stuck there, confused, with only your own memories.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
If you've watched someone you love suffer through Alzheimer's, or even if you've just been thinking about reading this book, do it. Watching the progression of the disease through the eyes of someone losing her sense of self is eye opening and a little frightening.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls remains one of my all-time favorite reads. It is a memoir of Jeanette’s upbringing by her deeply dysfunctional parents. The Walls make growing up in an unconventional and poverty-stricken household into an adventure.


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Glamour, scandal, vintage Hollywood = perfect beach read. Evelyn, an aging movie icon, takes us on a captivating journey through her seven marriages all the while reminding us how unexpected and complex life and love can be. Layered with emotion all the way to the shocking end.

I am currently reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a galley I picked up at BEA years ago. Not exactly a summer read, but I’m glad I finally took it off the shelf. This summer I look forward to reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

book on beach

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
I love the way Hanif Abdurraqib writes. It's never about just one thing. The essays in this collection are ostensibly about music, but more specifically its power to shape both the world around us and how we find our place in it, examining along the way race, religion, sports, loss, suburban life, Ric Flair, and the finer points of early-aughts emo.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
You know who else is great? Sally Rooney. Between this novel and her debut, Conversations with Friends, she has quickly established herself as a master of character. We see her young protagonists' strengths and weaknesses, how they fumble communication and collide into one another, through prose that is spare yet cutting.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby is one of the funniest people on the planet. And certainly among the most honest. Every one of her essays is as full of self-deprecating humor as it is unflinching in its examination of her all too human struggles. I will never stop recommending it to people.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Ideally, the publication of a new Ted Chiang collection would warrant some kind of special holiday. If you like impeccable, contemplative speculative fiction (seriously, there isn't a word out of place in his writing), this is a stunner.

As far as my own summer reading plans go, I have not yet read but am looking forward to Casey McQuiston's Red, White & Royal Blue (my publishing friends have been raving about it for months), G. Willow Wilson's The Bird King (she's a must-read in any genre), and Karen Russell's Orange World and Other Stories (I mean, c'mon, it's Karen Russell).


Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel
I found this 944-page heavyweight to be as intimate in its details as it is vast in its scope. It is a comprehensive look at the careers of five painters—Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler—who scratched for their places in the gallery, and the conversation, amid the rough-and-tumble, male-dominated world of American abstract art in the mid-20th century.

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
Living in New England, I have been an avid candlepin bowler all of my life. It’s a sport unique to the area, using a smaller ball, skinny pins, weirder ricochets, and lower scores than tenpin bowling.

So to read Elizabeth McCracken’s imaginative novel Bowlaway is thrilling not just to exist in a place where I am already comfortable, but to find new wonder in the universe it depicts. It imagines the arrival of a mysterious woman, Bertha Truitt, to the fictional town of Salford, Massachusetts, where she opens a bowling alley and establishes a matriarchal presence, her fiery spirit overlooking a century’s worth of descendants. The book is about family, and how myths and legends survive. Wise to its far corners, Bowlaway is filled to the brim with grandeur and humanity.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
A Lucky Man is a collection of nine stories about young black boys and men finding their way in Brooklyn and the Bronx. They contend with family struggles, fraught relationships, family histories, and navigate the codes of masculinity and expectation that come with being a young man of color in the 21st century. I found each sentence to be full of grace, complexity, and candor.


Multi-Tactic Ecological Weed Management in a Changing Climate by Dr. Sonja K. Birthisel
While the lack of dramatic narrative might be unsettling to some readers, I am very much looking forward to Dr. Birthisel’s dissertation on the efficacy of soil solarization as opposed to tarping with black plastic.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
My son, age 9, has recently read this book and its sequels, and highly recommended it to me.

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver
Gilliver is a stunningly competent lexicographer and researcher, and I’ve been looking forward to having sufficient time to read his book on the history of this magnificent dictionary with the attention it no doubt deserves.


A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The author’s comedic voice carries the reader on a wild adventure along the Appalachian Trail. This is a real page turner that will keep you laughing! Great for adventurers, nature lovers, and historians alike. A perfect summertime read!

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