Thursday, August 21, 2008

Summer reading

As serene as I may be in the knowledge that four whole weeks of summer stretch out before me, my first day of classes nevertheless arrives on Tuesday.

It would be hard for a summer to be worse than last summer, but even given its modest competition, this summer still feels like the most pleasurable one I've had in years. I haven't taken any big vacations, and though I've gotten a fair amount of work done, no huge hurdles have been lept or grand visions acquired. Really, the most notable thing I've done is read.

Now, I read all the time, but usually I'm reading in catch-up mode: gotta get this book read for class on Thursday, or that one before my reading group meets tomorrow--or this other one in order to finish off my article revisions. Such obligatory reading can still be quite pleasurable, and I've spent long lovely hours in bed with a cup of tea and The Faerie Queene or in a coffee shop with a notepad and some volume or other from Cambridge University Press. Still. . . it's obligatory.

But this summer, for all my to-do and to-read lists (and my tiresomely Protestant tendency to see all projects as self-improving ones and thus Not To Be Shirked), I felt that I actually had time to explore. My fellowship allowed me to look at all kinds of random Early Modern shit; prepping for my new fall class sent me through dozens of articles and perhaps a half-dozen books; and spending a month in a city where I knew no one gave me an excuse to work through several scholarly books only tangentially relevant to my own research.

I'd characterize all of the above as relatively fun reading--on the grounds that anything not immediately necessary must be fun--but this summer I also did more leisure reading than I have in years.

A couple of months ago Prof. de Breeze had a great post on how little leisure reading he himself does these days. It was a post I related to, as I'd been worrying about the declining number of novels (&c.) I've been reading over the past few years; a couple over winter break and a couple over the summer, usually, tending to fall into two categories: either Classics I Should Have Read Long Ago or temporarily engrossing but ultimately forgettable contemporary fiction. I was starting to wonder whether maybe I just wasn't a leisure reader any more--or whether there was something about my life that made contemporary fiction feel less relevant.

As someone who has always read and whose livelihood depends on students who themselves identify as readers, that possibility was disturbing but not unplausible; I'd long since stopped reading the short fiction in The New Yorker, at least in part because it felt the least urgent: given the finite amount of my reading time, I concluded that the nonfictional stuff was what was interesting, topical--and much more likely to come up in dinner-party conversation.

So I'm pleased to report that, this summer, I got my leisure-reading groove back. This is what I read:
August Wilson, The Piano Lesson
Richard Russo, Straight Man
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
David Mamet, American Buffalo
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
Tom Perrotta, Joe College

(Plus eight to ten Hernandez Brothers comics and the opening chapters of The Yiddish Policeman's Union.)
Some of the books I read were merely good--a fun way to pass the time and a means of shoring up, ever so slightly, my claims to familiarity with the current literary scene. Others, though, reminded me of what made me a reader and a writer in the first place.

And if that isn't a justification for 14 weeks away from the classroom, I don't know what is.


Anonymous said...

I've been rediscovering leisurely fiction lately, too - & it's not even summer in this part of the world.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being - which I just read for the first time - & An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England have been my favourites of the last week or so.

Which of your fiction list did you find the most exciting/engrossing? I am always desperate for more recommendations . . .


Flavia said...

Hi Cleo, and thanks for the recs!

Kavalier and Clay is the best novel I've read in at least five years--and either that or Straight Man alone would have been enough to reignite my enthusiasm for contemporary fiction.

Doctor Cleveland said...

What a great list! (Kavalier & Clay is also a favorite of mine ... and who can resist Los Bros? Not I.)

Congratulations on your rich literary leisure.

Anonymous said...

I for one thought Kav&Clay was overrated. The context and plot were great, but it was about 400pp. too long. I just don't care for Chabon's belabored beat-this-sentence-till-it-screams style.

Which Hernandez Hermanos books did you read? I finished *Palomar* over the summer, and I'm part way through *Locas* (those are the giant collections that are too large to read in bed).

Flavia said...

I think part of what I liked about K&C--in addition to the plot and setting--was the way it meditated on escape and escapism and the value of fiction. It's a subject I may always be a sucker for, but it was probably all the more affecting for me as I found myself getting excited about fiction all over again.

The Hernandez Bros. comics I read were all Penny Century--in single, individual issues lent me by my colleague, the pseudonymous Jack (who also recommended/introduced me to them). Must say I worried a bit about damaging them!

Anonymous said...

See, I didn't really find anything new or interesting in the escape/value of fiction theme. And for the Siegel & Shuster theme, Gerald Whatsisbuckets' *Men of Tomorrow* does a much better job (and better written, too, for my money).

I'd be more than a bit worried about damaging *Penny Century* issues! But lucky you, and generous Jack.

gwoertendyke said...

that is so lovely and so deserved...i didn't read nearly as much as i had intended to this summer, but read a lot of enjoyable fiction and did no catch up reading.

the perfect way of putting it--reading for purpose.

Anonymous said...

Oooo, thanks. Will pick up a copy of Kavalier and Clay next time I hit the bookstore. I adored the Straight Man too (whereas David Lodge is too conservative for me), so chances are I'll love K & C as well.

It's impossible for me to write a lot without binge reading at the same time: I need to replenish myself with words to make up for those I'm pouring out all day - like a blood transfusion . . .


Jack said...

So glad you liked the PCs. I've got a the big fact LOCAS collection of Maggie and Hopey stories sitting right next to me if you'd like to borrow. Much less damageable. But also much more difficult to carry around. Will have V back to you soon.

I read K&C a few summers ago and don't remember thinking it was one of the best novels I'd ever read, but certainly one of the most entertaining and interesting in terms of touching on topics that I then felt motivated to meditate on myself outside of the way they played out in the text. Am having a similarly pleasurable experience with Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Only half way through but totally worth it if you decide keep up your summer reading in these next 4 weeks.

Doctor Cleveland said...

And really, who doesn't like Maggie & Hopey?