Books for Picnics | The Reader’s Shelf

A picnic book is as essential as a blanket, for reading outdoors is a sublime pleasure that spring invites with blossoms and bright blue skies. Just as what fills a picnic hamper or take-out bag is customizable and endless in its variety, so too are reading choices. Here are a few suggestions based on form.

A picnic book is as essential as a blanket, for reading outdoors is a sublime pleasure that spring invites with blossoms and bright blue skies. Just as what fills a picnic hamper or take-out bag is customizable and endless in its variety, so too are reading choices. Here are a few suggestions based on form.

Poetry is ideal, especially from poets focused on nature and the ways it expands awareness and understanding. That is Mary Oliver’s forte. The award-winning poet wrote about the way the quiet, small, lovely, isolated moments of a cricket’s eye change our focus, shift understanding, and open space for inner interrogation. Her language choice is clear, and her construction highlights a keen sense of pacing and line. Her transcendent, revelatory poems leave readers shifted in place, as if Oliver allowed them into a different space, what she termed the “second level.” Readers who forget to take a book on their picnic might look up “Peonies,” but others will remember to tuck Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (Penguin. 2020. ISBN 9780399563263. $20) into their bag. The collection includes some of Oliver’s most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese,” and wonderful examples of her sharp, small gems of observation, such as “This Morning.” READ NEXT: Oliver was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose Collected Poems (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) makes a fine companion.

Essay collections are also excellent. Try Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions. 2015. ISBN 9781571313560. $20), by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer explores the nature of the living landscape we inhabit, and in doing so also writes about loss, strength, and grace. Her book, which is story-based as well as science-based, is both ode and warning, a call to pay attention and to live and craft a new relationship with the natural world. Sharply observant and wide-ranging, Kimmerer’s is a clarion voice. Each piece forms a braided whole, but readers can dip in and out of the text as well. READ NEXT: Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard, is another work centered on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It is more specific but also personal, imploring, and beautifully written.

Kevin Huizenga’s Curses (Drawn & Quarterly. 2006. ISBN 9781894937863. $21.95) is a dreamy, odd, observational collection of short stories in graphic novel form. As it is likely to leave the reader in a state of happy, quizzical pondering, and as each story is a neatly contained offering, it makes for fine reading during a lazy lull outdoors. Huizenga has an existential eye and uses his everyman character Glenn Ganges as a means to comment on how life works, how people feel and communicate, and how we believe. His drawings mix clever, clear, sharp imagery with a swoony swirl of expressionism; they’re transporting and arresting and support his equally well-crafted stories. The point is not to understand every line and word, but to be caught up in Huizenga’s questions and images. READ NEXT: Suggest Here, by Richard McGuire—another work that uses the mundane ordinary world to open the truly expansive.

Nature guides are an obvious picnic choice but delightful nonetheless. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer’s National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic. 2017. ISBN 9781426218354. $29.99) offers aid to amateur birders as well as more experienced ones seeking to identify a new spotting. Even readers who have no plans to do more than listen to chirps and warbles will enjoy paging through the book’s illustrations and considering its diagram of a bird’s wing. With an easily accessible organization, maps, and illustrations that show birds standing, in flight, in different color morphs, and at different ages, the work invites browsing. Short entries include written range considerations, physical descriptions with notes on spotting, and voice. Wondering if that goose hissing a few feet away is a Cackling or Canada? This guide illustrates neck size, flight, and bill differences to help make the call. READ NEXT: National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America, by Jonathan Alderfer and Noah Strycker, offers a similar experience for readers whose picnic takes them outside their door or to a small city park.

Never travel without a novel. Personal choice rules here, but a text that’s immediately engaging, vivid, and immersive will match the picnic mood. Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief (Orbit. 2022. ISBN 9780316368766. $28) fits that bill. The magical tale is built on threads pulled from One Thousand and One Nights and sets four travelers on a perilous quest to find the jinn in the lamp. None of the travelers wishes to journey across the silvery, deadly sea of sand to the city that might reveal the all-powerful magic in the lamp. Each is compelled to go, however, by secrets and wishes too dangerous to reveal and by forces they cannot control. The multiple plots and motivations create an intricate weave of desires and cross-purposes and make space for other parties with designs of their own to intervene. And, as the four cross the sand, they are drawn into a magical world where the jinn rule with aims of their own. Abdullah’s brilliant plotting, strong characterizations, and stunning world-building enchants from the first chapter, making it the kind of book one is more than happy to while away the day reading. READ NEXT: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, offers a similar mix of evocative, immersive, magical reading with characters caught in a perilous fight.

Neal Wyatt is LJ’s Reviews Editor.

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