The summer syllabus

You may have noticed that this year’s summer reading guide is tighter than previous editions: it only has 7 categories, 5 books in each, and—this is the big change—if I couldn’t imagine you wanting to take the book to the beach with you, I didn’t include it.

(Need the guide? Here’s how to get yours).

That means no crazy-slow-to-develop gorgeous novels, no productivity books, no poetry. (Well, not many.)

But I like to read year-round, and I know I’m not alone. As much as I love my novels, I also read to get smart—to develop my craft, to dive deep into subjects, to explore topics I know nothing about.

The Summer Syllabus from Modern Mrs Darcy. Ten books to make you smarter this summer. View the syllabus and create your own at

So I created my Summer Syllabus. (Thanks to Melissa for suggesting the title on facebook.) These are the books that didn’t make the cut for the summer reading guide because they’re too nerdy (even for the Nerdy Nonfiction category!) But I want to read them this summer—or at least feel like I should.

I'm sorry, sir, but Dostoyevsky is not considered summer reading.

So here’s my Summer Syllabus: 10 summer reads that will make me smarter:

Writing Creative Nonfiction

Writing Creative Nonfiction

A writerly friend recommended this at FFW last month as a good book for improving my craft as a nonfiction writer. I ordered a copy before I unpacked my suitcase. It’s a compilation of thirty-ish short essays—from Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Philip Gerard—focusing on different aspects of the craft. I should start this soon so I can read it slowly over the summer. More info →
Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

This book has been enthusiastically recommended by several book nerds with great taste, and explores the history of mapmaking from the olden days of parchment to today’s google maps and GPS. I love a good map (who doesn’t?) and am totally intrigued: when it comes to geography, I don’t know enough to know what I don’t know. More info →
Chance or the Dance

Chance or the Dance

This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years, as it’s been recommended by numerous people I respect across the years who have nothing in common (except for being older than me, wiser than me, and not afraid of reading deeply). But it sounds a little dry so I haven’t made myself pick it up—yet. More info →
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Technology is changing the way we interact with each other: but is that good or bad, and what should we do about it? Turkle, an MIT professor, draws on 15 years of data to show how face-to-face relationships are changing in the facebook age. Because I make my living largely from behind a screen, this is on my must-read list. More info →
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Billed as a perfect choice for fans of Unbroken, this bestselling story about an American crew team seeking Olympic gold during the Depression has garnered nearly 2000 5-star reviews on Amazon. I fully expect this to be as compelling as any novel I read this summer. More info →
The Economy of Cities

The Economy of Cities

I’m weirdly fascinated by urban planning, so this follow-up to Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities(one of the books that makes me feel like I’m not crazy) is on my must-read list. Many consider this later work by Jacobs to be her crowning achievement as an author and shaper of society. More info →
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

I promised myself that I would read something, anything by Goodwin this year, and I did: Wait Till Next Year, which made the summer reading guide in the Nerdy Nonfiction category. I liked it so much I’m diving into the deep end with this straight-up history of the Lincoln era. My dad will be proud. More info →
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Imagine The Elements of Style, but meatier, and for nonfiction. I’ve read chunks of this book but never the whole thing, which is why it’s been languishing on my books I’ve been meaning to read list for too long. (With all these writing books on my list, I need to plan for extra time to write!) More info →
The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

I don’t know enough about math to even describe this book: ask me in three months? Goodreads reviewers swear it’s readable, and the author has been a frequent guest on Radiolab, which gives me hope. While it sounds interesting, this isn’t the kind of book I’d usually take to the beach. I’m making a place for it this summer. More info →
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Bronwyn first talked me into reading this one, but it got bumped up my list after I heard the author speak at FFW. The title sounds fancy and staid, but Prior had us in hysterics with her excerpt that linked Thomas Hardy with her teenage attempts to lose her virginity. A possible beach read. More info →

Which of these look good to you? Will you make your own summer syllabus? What will be on it?  


Leave A Comment
  1. I enjoyed “Unbroken”– so I look forward to reading “Boys in the Boat” – thanks for sharing that. I look forward to several other selections here: “Booked”, “The Joy of X”, and “Writing Creative Nonfiction”. I think my teen son will enjoy “Maphead” and maybe “Team of Rivals”. A wonderful “summer syllabus”. Appreciate your book lists!

  2. Sheila says:

    Boys in the Boat is fantastic – one of my favorites from last year. The Joy of X was really enjoyable as well, and Team of Rivals is great. You’ve got some terrific picks here!

  3. Team of Rivals is not very nerdy. It’s a great read. If you’ve read any David McCullough books, it’s similar to those. I haven’t read any of the others so I’m excited to add some of them to my list!

      • Oh, I think you would really like him. He has a way of writing history and biography books as if they are novels. His audio “The Course of Human Events” is also fantastic. I’ve read Truman, John Adams, Mornings on Horseback, and 1776 and there’s not a dud in the bunch. There was a book of essays I checked out once by him but I can’t remember what it was called. I haven’t read all of his books but I keep meaning to.

  4. I loved Unbroken and have been curious about Boys in the Boat for that reason. Booked is also on my list. My husband loved Team of Rivals – I bet you will too!

    I’ve got several stacks of TBRs at the moment – I need to make my own syllabus!

  5. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for these suggestions. “Booked” is the only one I’ve read and it’s definitely not staid — it’s so fascinating how KSP weaves different stages in her life with various books that were life-altering for her. Of course the problem is you’ll want to read, or re-read, every one of the books she talks about after you’ve finished, but that’s a good problem!

  6. sarah k says:

    I’ve been wanting to read Team of Rivals for a long time! Currently reading another book about the Civil War (1861 by Adam Goodheart) which would make my grandpa proud–he watched the Ken Burns series with me repeatedly when I was a kid.

    Booked sounds right up my alley!

    So how about a Summer Novel Syllabus for those long, slow, literary novels? 🙂 I know, I’m being greedy!

    • Anne says:

      I think I’ll re-post previous years reading guides soon. There’s a “gorgeous novel” category in there somewhere. Off the top of my head, a few favorites are Jayber Crow, Gilead, Brideshead.

  7. Amy says:

    Oooh – Writing Creative Nonfiction sounds good! I got to hear Terry Tempest Williams speak when I was in college, and I loved her.

  8. Meg says:

    Okay, now my summer reading list just exploded–again! Thank you for the reminder that I want to read Unbroken–I had just mentioned it to my husband over the weekend. My first Doris Kearns Goodwin was No Ordinary Time; and I’ve been circling Team of Rivals since watching Lincoln last year.

  9. Heather says:

    Maphead sounds really intriguing to me. I’m also considering The Joy of X since I am currently reading a similar book. The book I am currently reading is The Disappearing Spoon, which is about the periodic table. It is very interesting to learn how each element came about and I love that I am learning something. The way the author writes about the elements is intriguing and not boring, but a lot of the book does go over my head since I’m not great with Chemistry or Physics :]. Also, you’ve recommended too many books that sound good and I need to find a lot more time to read everything!!! :]

    • Anne says:

      The Disappearing Spoon would be perfect for this list! (Well, except that I already read it. 🙂 It’s just the right kind of book.

  10. Ginger says:

    Loving several of these suggestions! I like to temper my light summer novels with something thought-provoking for balance, so these are right up our alley.

    Is that Ken Jennings the famous guy from Jeopardy? We are Jeopardy nerds around here. Perhaps my hubby would like to join in reading a few of these.

  11. Bonnie says:

    Unbroken is in the queue to be read (on your recommendation) and I should have ordered a Team of Rivals already. Now I think I’ll have to add Boys in the Boat. I’m about to get buried if I don’t get crackin’!

    • Anne says:

      I hear you on that! If I read three of these a month, I’ll finish this list by Labor Day. But then I have all my other summer reading lists to also tend to…. 🙂

  12. Jess says:

    Oh these look great! What a challenging list of books- thanks! I read Alone Together and became initially quite pessimistic about technology. I think I’ve lightened up since then- will be interested to read your thoughts!

  13. Yay! I thought that was a fun title. 🙂

    I love Writing Creative Nonfiction, and the Zinsser is on my shelf, but I don’t think I’ve ever read through it. Now I’ll have to go check.

    My oldest daughter read Joy of X recently and really enjoyed it! (I raise them on nerdy nonfiction…) 😉

  14. Molly says:

    Let me know what you think of Team of Rivals. I have had that book on my list for awhile, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. A friend of mine read it and found it difficult to keep all the players’ roles straight. I love American history though, especially the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

  15. I would love to read Writing Creative Nonfiction. I think my Creative Nonfiction class in college changed writing for me. It was like learning about blogging before there really were blogs!! (Not many, at least. This was in 2003.)

    Booked also sounds up my alley!

  16. Mama Rachael says:

    So, the last book, ‘Booked’ is linked to a book called “The Secret Keeper”, which looks interesting but not the same book. These all look interesting, I’m checking them out, will add them to my goodreads list…

  17. Heather says:

    I love the idea of a Summer Syllabus! I haven’t read any of these, but am definitely adding them to my to-read list. ‘Booked’ looks particularly up my alley, but I’m curious about all of them (though I may be too math-phobic to read ‘Joy of X’). Thanks for the great recommendations, as always. 🙂

  18. Brenda says:

    Maphead made me think of a book I read a few years ago, “Longitude: by Dava Sobel. It’s about the attempts to accurately measure longitude. Fascinating stuff.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve read that latitude is easy but longitude is tough to measure. (Why do I know this??) I’ll add it to my list! But no promises I’ll get to it by Labor Day—this is getting out of hand!

  19. Deborah says:

    Being a schmut book reader (insert cringe from all your followers) I don’t usually have much to add to a literary discussion. But tonight at a graduation party three states from home someone mentioned reading a book about a crew team and I actually knew what they were talking about! They had great reviews for The Boys in the Boat, and I am looking forward to reading it when I get back from the beach. Btw, finally read Into Thin Air and Five Days at Memorial. Excellent reads and very thought provoking. Thanks for the recommendations!

  20. Amanda says:

    Most of these went on my to-read list (which is getting out of control, hahaha). I love to alternate fiction and non-fiction. Especially can’t wait to read the books about writing, as that is an area in which I’ve been trying to grow.

  21. Jeannine Loftus says:

    I love this list! Many of these are already on my (very large TBR list) but this moved them up a few notches. I have read _On Writing Well_ and highly recommend it! Thanks for taking the time. I love connecting with readers who go beyond just he popular fiction in a season. Love the podcast and website. Thanks for taking the time to keep it fresh all the time.

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