Now that the days are long and vacation is on hand, it’s time to dream, especially inside the pages of some book we’ve been meaning to get to all year. The more daunting the literary challenge the better—forget old standbys like Hamlet and Hemingway; this summer we can tackle the really ambitious stuff. Maybe doorstopper-sized Don Quixote, that mighty intellectual puzzle Ulysses, or even an obscure Shakespeare play. Bring on King John and Thackeray, make way for Ford Madox Ford!
But by early August our literary dreams of late May might, in retrospect, seem like what invading Russia must have looked like to Napoleon: a good idea at the time but ultimately a crushing overreach. You might bring Shakespeare to the beach only to find that he’s even more difficult to read under the glare of a hot sun than in the comfort of a library. And as far as Ulysses goes, well, Joyce was right when he said that it would keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over its meaning. Trying to solve its enigmas while your kids pour wet sand over its pages will likely produce a migraine, not enlightenment.
So why do we persist in our often futile quest for the Great Summer Read? Why not just load the beach bag with the latest Lee Child instead of Leo Tolstoy? I think Henry James said it best: “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” James repeats the two words, savoring them on his tongue like ice cream or chocolate—it is the sweetest time of the year, a time for grand literary plans. Of course, we tackle more elaborate books in summer because we have more time on our hands, with the season’s longer days, the time off from work, and the promise of leisure in the air. But there’s also a psychological effect at work. From our childhood days, the coming of summer and the end of the school year meant the end of our “required” reading: no more homework, no more chapter assignments, no more mandatory synopses of The Scarlet Letter or historical summaries of “Everyday Life in Dickens’ London.” Come the solstice, many of us experienced something that will never disappear: the exhilaration of setting our own literary agenda—a private summer syllabus devoid of grades and fueled by love alone.
When I was in college, I read more, and more effectively, during the summer than during the semester. I recently taught Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and came across a phrase I had memorized, 30 years ago, when I was a sophomore: “A day of dappled seaborne clouds.” I read those words not in a literature class, but while walking through the largely empty campus after the academic year had ended. I had dreams of becoming a writer myself, and I spent that summer reading anything that might aid me in my quest. Now, decades later, I found myself encountering those words through the eyes of my students, who are about the same age I was when I first fell under their verbal spell. What will be my students’ summer reading, I wonder, and how will the books they choose fuel their dreams?
And what will be the books that teach the teacher? For me, summer reading is always a balancing act between the books I have loved, the books I feel I oughta love, and the books I sense I will love. So I will reconnect with old friends like Dante’s Vita Nuova in the lush and still preeminent translation by the Pre-Raphaelite master Dante Gabriel Rossetti, finally square off with Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace, and explore important new contemporary works like Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories. There will be nonfiction as well. I hope to finish the brilliant meditation on decision making, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, that I started in the dead of winter. And when U.S. Open tennis rolls around in melancholic late August, I will likely reconnect with John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, a classic on the 1968 battle—physical and metaphysical—between the African-American humanitarian Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, the epitome of the WASP establishment. All these very different books will have one thing in common: not one of them is homework, either for my students or for me.
The more I teach, the more I am convinced that books choose us as much as we choose them. The words in a book you love will not change from year to year, but your interpretations of them will if you read them at different times of your life. We’re drawn to certain works by a mysterious magnetic pull, a gravity we cannot always explain. Sometimes we’re even pulled in by books that we know we will not, cannot finish. What might seem like an overreach or pipe dream, a doomed attempt to tackle a mighty tome, may be our opening up of ourselves to something new and mysterious, a journey that will spill over from one summer to the next.
My own dreams for the Great Summer Read have become more modest over time: if I can manage to discover one truly transformational book, then it will have been a successful chapter in my reading life. Last summer, I spent weeks on the majestic Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. His tale of the rise and fall of a once-prosperous German merchant family begins with the Buddenbrooks gathering for one of their biweekly celebrations on an evening that will include delicious food (“a colossal smoked ham, brick-red and strewn with bread crumbs” [trans. John E. Woods]), poetry, music, and raucous good cheer for seven hours. I remember thinking, Who today would interrupt their work for a Thursday four P.M. feast on that scale! I now think of Mann’s imaginary party as the ultimate allegory for summer reading: a space carved out from the regular flow and busyness of life that starts out as a pleasant interlude and ends up as an essential ritual.
Of course, I never came within a million miles of becoming the next Joyce—or, for that matter, the next Ford Madox Ford (what I would give to have such an alliterative double-barreled pen name). But I do get to teach Joyce and other great writers for a living. I now see that this was the real dream, all those years ago. I was preparing myself for a life with books, sharing them with students like the ones who just read Joyce with me. My Great Summer Read, like that of so many others, put me on a path that I was completely unaware of at the time, led along as I was by the promise of a powerful book and its magical contents. I did try to read Ulysses that summer too, but only made it to about page 34. No matter—there’s always next summer.
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