Zinsser on Friday

Summer House Books

By William Zinsser | July 22, 2011


There’s nothing like the library of a summer house to reverse the tides of literary improvement. How the nation’s English teachers must sigh, having assigned as summer reading such edifying works as 1984 and Lord of the Flies, to think of their charges curled up with the glorious chestnuts of yesteryear that line the shelves of cottages by the sea and cabins in the woods. Never weeded out, they are an archive of American popular taste in the earlier years of the 20th century.

Our first summer house was on Long Island, in the village of Westhampton Beach. It was a shingled structure that had seen many additions and also many subtractions, some inflicted by the historic hurricane of 1938, which left a three-foot-high watermark in the parlor. The house came furnished, as many summer “cottages” then did, and some of its tables and dressers were known as “hurricane furniture,” having floated across the bay, unclaimed, from the beach houses on Dune Road that were blown away by the storm.

But beneath the insults of time and weather the house had the charm of early American summer-by-the-sea architecture and décor: bay windows, wicker settees, marble bathroom sinks, a glider on the front porch. The elaborate dinner sets owned by the original matron—fish platters and cruets and soup tureens, which we never used—were part of our daily landscape.

The house also came with a library of summer-house books: water-stained volumes, printed in bad type on yellowing paper, inscribed with the names of long-gone family members and renters and weekend guests, many of the books still clasping between their pages some scrap of topical information: the tide table for 1940, the schedule for Top Hat at the Playhouse. The once-beloved titles continued to call out across the generations: Anne of Green Gables, Ozma of Oz, Silver Chief Dog of the North, A Girl of the Limberlost, White Shadows in the South Seas, The Mask of Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu! How had I traveled so far in life without meeting that devious wizard? Sitting under a reading lamp in a wicker chair that creaked with my slightest shift of weight, I became the helpless slave of the lush prose of Sax Rohmer, impatient to find out whether Dr. Petrie and Nayland Smith would rescue Rima from the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid (“‘We meet again, Sir Denis—a meeting which I observe you have not anticipated.’ Those incredible green eyes beyond the globular lamp looked at him unblinkingly.”).

Frank Baum, creator of the Oz books, perhaps spoke for all those summer-house storytellers when he thanked his young readers in the preface to Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. “To have pleased you,” he says, “to have interested you, to have won your friendship, and perhaps your love, is to my mind as great an achievement as to become President of the United States. So you have helped me to fulfill my life’s ambition.” It’s a modest ambition but, on the whole, not a bad one. Besides, Baum would have made a lousy president.

Summer-house libraries are also where the bright hopes of diplomats and envoys are buried. How pale the actors look who once strutted their hour across the stage of politics and government (Failure of a Mission: Berlin 1937-39, by Sir Neville Henderson). Time has treated almost all of them with indifference. What findings did Thomas E. Dewey find on his Journey to the South Pacific? Who cares?

Up-to-the-minute punditry also lies in ruins on the bookshelves of summer. I think of John Gunther, a world-affairs expert who vaulted to fame in 1933 with his Inside Europe. In 1936 he was back with Inside Europe, Completely Revised, and again in 1938 with Inside Europe, Again Completely Revised. But Europe refused to stay revised, and in 1961 Gunther surfaced once again with Inside Europe Today. Meanwhile he had also been inside Africa, South America, Asia, and the U.S.A. He was a boxer who wouldn’t stay knocked down when current events ceased to be current.

Since then Gunther’s descendants have indefatigably stocked our summer shelves with compendious tomes of outdated information. I find it consoling that none of them was able to hold the future still. It assures me that I don’t have to tremble before every dire prediction written by today’s columnists and bloggers and shouted by talk-show hosts. They, too, shall pass.

I’m going to stick with the enduring gratifications. I can almost feel my fingers reaching for The Mask of Fu Manchu.

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