February 21, 2020

The Great Summer Read

“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.”

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