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Summer Reading 2011

Though here at Open Letters Monthly we read as much as we can in every season, we still appreciate the special spaciousness of summer—that sense of there somehow being more hours, or slower hours, available to be filled with the myriad pleasures of books. But which ones? Even in the summer, the days are too short to waste on the trivial, the mediocre, the derivative, the dull. In this special feature, our team of avid readers offers some suggestions for books a little off the beaten path of summer blockbusters—books we have read and loved, and think are well worth tucking into your beach tote or suitcase, or just putting at the top of your TBR pile. The diversity of the recommendations—in both their styles and their selections—reflects the cheerful idiosyncrasy of the Open Letters staff as well as our commitment to having OLM itself reflect the endless variety of the republic of letters we all so happily inhabit.

Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief

For me, summer reading is about eating your cake and having it too. The free time you enjoy during vacations and protracted evenings offers a chance to bag some literary big game, the longer or more daunting books you’d always been meaning to get to (this is why no one has ever read Proust between the months of October and April). But summer is also a time for relaxation, and there’s something vaguely ridiculous about lugging The Brothers Karamazov or The Wealth of Nations to the beach every morning with your towel and sunscreen. The ideal books for summer are friendly and approachable, yet still leave you with a sense of accomplishment when you finish them.

One of my most pleasing summers, then, revolved around Leonard Woolf’s mighty five-volume autobiography, first published between 1960 and 1969 (the last year of his life). The endlessly fascinating and infuriating Bloomsbury Group has been the subject of hundreds of studies, memoirs, and biographies, and this is one of the most rewarding. The complete set comes to around 1,100 pages, but the prose is so lucid and the voice so bright and chatty (paradoxically, since Woolf was a rather cranky person) that the pages disappear as easily as a pitcher of spiked lemonade.

Woolf (perhaps cannily) emerges as a thoroughly appealing modern figure: secular, fiercely, even irascibly moral, unapologetically intellectual, and industrious—a man stripped of all illusions yet buoyed by a stoic sensibility learned from books, music, and family. In the first volume, Growing, he describes his father’s influence on his notions of upright behavior:

He was certainly intelligent, reserved, and quick-tempered, but also very nervous and highly strung, and, though normally very kind, more intolerant of fools and their folly than any other man whom I have known. Though not an orthodox Jew, his ethical code of conduct was terrific, but he was not, in my recollection of him, either passionately on the side of righteousness or violently against sin…. He once said that in his opinion a
perfect and complete rule of conduct for a man’s life had, once and for all, been laid down by the prophet Micah in the words: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

The man who would pass through the twentieth century aspiring to that conduct is bound to have a hard time of it; the two World Wars and the disintegration of Britain’s Empire form the backdrop of these chronicles, but they often push to the fore. Woolf wisely abandoned fiction-writing after he married Virginia Stephen, and he became involved instead in Labour party politics, writing a great many unknown works of political science and working as one of the chief designers of the doomed League of Nations.

But the reader will be naturally drawn to Woolf’s private life and his insights into the erratic personalities that made Bloomsbury. Here we read about the witty and waspish Lytton Strachey, the effervescent Roger Fry, the standoffish E.M. Forster, and scores more in a panorama that includes Yeats, Shaw, Wells, and T.S. Eliot (who is scandalized when Woolf stops on a stroll to pee in the bushes). And of course, looming above them all, is Virginia, whose towering but heartbreakingly fragile genius was the focal point of Woolf’s daily existence. Her death effectively concludes the autobiography, but for a bit of summing up—Woolf retells it with the same clarity and moral probity that mark the rest of this great work.

John Cotter, Executive Editor:

It’s tricky for me to write about summer reading because I think I read less in the summer—I look at the waves, not the page. My reading life, such as it is, tends to assert itself in my everyday. I read with coffee in the morning and on the subway to work. I read at the library some evenings and I read at home on the weekends. I read before bed, here and there, but I don’t read at the beach or in the woods or walking through new cities. I can’t tell you what you should read this summer (as opposed to this winter, or the Summer of 2024), but I can tell you what another person like yourself is reading; I can tell you what I’m reading now and that you might enjoy anytime.

Clive Ponting wrote a wonderful history of the world in 2000. I’ve only just started reading the book, but the half I’ve read so far has inspired me to reach much farther in my non-Western, non-European history. World History: A New Perspective is laid out like an outline, one that treats all cultures and all locations with equal skepticism and equal weight. The Chinese finally get more space than the French (quite a different approach from that of the Durants who, as Hegel would have approved, crammed 4,000 years of Chinese history into the second half of their first book and don’t bother mentioning the place again for another five volumes). Islam and pre-Columbian American are better-than-glossed and innovation is surveyed multiculturally, even if only one of those cultures embraced a given innovation:

Human acquisitiveness, the pursuit of profit and gain through investment, trading and enterprise are common to all societies throughout history. In fact one of the first to develop it on a major scale was China and not Europe. The transition that took place in Europe in the period after about 1600 was not in the nature of these activities but in the shift to fossil-fuel energy sources and the development of new industrial technologies.

Ponting’s many paints and many brushes have made me more than curious about the swaths of history and geography that I’ve left unexplored. So for the next year or so I plan to read straight through, one or two books per major phase or major place. And I’ve started in the same place Werner Herzog started in his latest film: caves. In my option, Herzog might have more of his spent his limited time in Chauvet filming the art itself and less the lovable eccentrics who gawk around it. Fortunately, there’s Journey Through the Ice Age, a beautiful 2001 coffee-table book from University of California press. Inside, any reader can look for as long as they like at samples of every kind of prehistoric masterpiece, from the stick-figures of Lascaux to the eerily contemporary (but, in fact, eons more ancient) smudged horses and rhinos of Chauvet.

>Authors Paul G. Bahn and Jean Vertut not only report the discoveries and theories of this art with authority, they spin the human stories behind all the scientific infighting with warm enthusiasm. Particularly memorable is the story of Sanz de Sautuola, an 19th century enthusiast who was digging and sifting for bits of sculpture in the cave of Altamira by torchlight when his little daughter Maria made the first modern discovery of cave paintings. She’d been wandering around bored, gazing at the ceiling, when she suddenly shouted, “Mira, Papa,
bueyes!” As Bahn and Vertut write, “She had seen the cluster of great polychrome bison on the ceiling which had lain concealed in total darkness for 14,000 years, awaiting her.” We’re amazed to read how de Sautuola’s discovery was derided as a hoax and then dismissed as contemporary graffiti. Only long after his death (and of course he died a broken man) did his arch-foe Emile Cartailhac publish a paper entitled “Mea Culpa d’un sceptique,” apologizing for his skepticism and admitting the pictures to be the ancient wonders that they are.

Ten centuries later—but only one book over on my history shelf—I can heartily suggest Toby Wilkinson’s absorbing 2010 primer The Rise and fall of Ancient Egypt. In Wilkinson’s hands, Egypt shocks us both by its similarity to our own world (Egypt invented the middle class! Egyptians had love poetry — and it isn’t bad!) and by its otherness:

…one of the most jarring scenes from early Egypt is the band of decoration around the top of the Scorpion mace head. The tableau consist of a series of royal standards, each symbolizing a different aspect of the king’s authority. But they are not just standards; they are also gallows. From each one hangs a crested bird with a rope around its neck. In hieroglyphic writing, the lapwing symbolized the common people … On the scorpion mace head, the common people have been hanged on the gibbets of royal power.

On another piece, a king tramples lapwings under his feet. And it gets much creepier.

So these books, and then probably Chuang Tsu’s Zhuangzi, and then probably Byzantium: The Early Centuries are what I’ll be reading this summer. Unless I’m seduced, of course, by something above or below.

Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and host of Stevereads:

Ah, summer! The nights are sweeter, the hazy days are longer, and we can all enjoy some well-earned time off (months of it! All well-earned!) to catch up on our reading. And just like with American presidential candidates and Staten Island escort services, all those summer-readers out there will come with varying levels of expertise. No sense prescribing Hegel to readers who are struggling with Max Lucado, or handing The Late George Apley to a Sophie Kinsella fan—summer isn’t a time for pushing yourself as a reader, after all … you do plenty of that during the working months! No, what we want here is comfort-reading, designed to pay the maximum dividend in pleasure with the minimal outlay in effort. The only question remaining is: how to choose?

Why not turn to the people who invented the very concept of the summer vacation? Ancient Rome was already captivating readers even back in the days of, well, ancient Rome, and there are good reasons for this: larger-than-life personalities (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero, etc) stride across the stage of a rapidly-changing world full of drama, betrayal, and great quips. But if you decide to spend some time in ancient Rome this summer, be advised that even such a famous subject has various levels according to expertise. Let’s look at three sure-fire winners:

Advanced Level (reading for hours under a beach umbrella, ignoring the sun, sand, and surf):

The Annals: The historian Tacitus was not only one of ancient Rome’s greatest historians but also an endless source of inspiration for the American Founding Fathers who published the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Constitution, and established for themselves and their posterity the sacred tradition that nobody in the United States would work from Memorial Day to Labor Day – not even cab drivers and heart surgeons. The book we know as his Annals comes down to us about two-thirds complete and tells the year-by-year history of the emperors who came right after Augustus Caesar.
Our historian is sober-minded, but even so, his stories about Tiberius and Livia and Caligula and Claudius and the rest brim with juicy anecdotes. Newcomers encountering Tacitus for the first time are always struck by how completely readable he is, and that quality is captured wonderfully by Michael Grant in his venerable Penguin Classics translation.

Intermediate Level (reading a bit on the beach but mostly on the back patio at night):

I, Claudius: If you’re not quite ready for Tacitus, Robert Graves’ mega-bestselling 1934 classic might just be the thing for you. Graves tells the story of minor back-bencher Imperial family member Claudius, who had a limp and a stammer and was considered to be a congenital idiot by his scheming, power-hungry family. It’s Graves’ conceit that Claudius was actually something of a secret savant, shrewdly observing all the machinations going on around him but mainly intent on surviving. In this dense, very satisfying novel (which has lost not one step of his winning power in nearly a century), events outside of Claudius’ control sweep him to power in a system he despises, and the reader is treated to rich, evolving character portraits along the way. Upon the book’s publication, Graves was hounded by impertinent book critics who claimed he hopelessly muddled his research; Graves responded with a point-by-point manifesto and a sequel, Claudius the God. But you don’t have to take a side in that controversy – you can just sit back and enjoy the read.

Basic Level (it’ll be in your tote bag, but you’re not making any promises):

SPQR: Perhaps a little less research is what your summer vacation requires? Try this! Published in 1990, SPQR is the first of John Maddox Roberts’ multi-volume murder mystery series set in ancient Rome right at the time when Pompey and Crassus are pulling the old Republic to pieces like two wrestling hyenas, all the while not really knowing how watchful they should be of an up-and-comer in their midst named Gaius Julius Caesar. There’s corruption everywhere as Roman society explodes in one after another civil war, but even so, well-born young men must make their way in the world – so Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, the junior magistrate who finds himself in charge of what passes for Rome’s police force, must investigate the murder of a ex-slave and a foreign diplomat. Along the way, he discovers that he has a true taste for detective work (his hilariously gruff and imperious father scorns it as “snooping”). Roberts brings Republican Rome alive and keeps his plot moving briskly forward, and those would be recommendations enough, but there’s an added bonus – this author has one extra, glowing (and exceedingly rare, these days) talent: he knows how to stage and successfully pull off extended comic set-pieces. In virtually every book, there’s one of these that’s worthy of “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception” from Barchester Towers or “The Wake of Knocko Minihan” from The Last Hurrah. After a very frustrating decade in which Roberts’ ongoing Metellus adventures were only available in German, the whole delightful series is now published in English, with this first volume having been retitled The King’s Gambit.

Pan-Seared Sunfish (maybe we’ll tackle reading next summer):

HBO’s series Rome – it might not be the best-researched take on ancient Rome ever foisted on a viewing public, but that doesn’t matter: Kevin McKidd as uptight, cerebral Lucius Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as big-hearted, unstoppably homicidal Titus Pullo are purely glorious in the roles of their lives.

And me? I’ll be sitting in an air-conditioned library, reading The Wealth of Nations.

Summer Reading Continues