Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Summer reading

After driving cross-country, Stefan Beck wants nothing more than to settle down to his summer reading. He lists two novels (Pynchon, Aleksandar Hemon), a work of literary criticism, a history, and a food-and-travel book. The whole idea of summer reading is to shed your literary work-clothes, to lighten your usual reading load, to go on vacation from a certain kind of book. Pynchon hardly fits my definition of summer reading, but probably because I belong to a lighter literary weight-class than Beck.

The phrase may have originated with Hazlitt. In his essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets” (1823), he complains about Coleridge’s low opinion of Hume, “for I had just been reading, with infinite relish, that completest of all metaphysical choke-pears, his Treatise on Human Nature, to which the Essays, in point of scholastic subtilty and close reasoning, are mere elegant trifling, light summer reading.” (The phrase’s younger cousin, “beach reading,” was introduced in the New York Times by Charles Poore in 1966; he wondered whether a book were “beach-cabana reading.”)

The summer’s forthcoming fiction is not especially promising, although Mark Athitakis is looking forward to Ward Just’s Exiles in the Garden. Not until August, when Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic comes out, does a summer book appeal to me. My summer project is to read the complete fiction of Francine Prose from Judah the Pious (1973), written when she was twenty-four, through Bigfoot Dreams (1986), which Karl Bridges lists among the 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read, and on to last year’s Goldengrove, which I am excited to be rereading so soon after reviewing it in December.

It is a summer book at least in the respect that its events are confined to summer. Other summer books in this respect include The Great Gatsby, which opens shortly before the summer solstice (“In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year,” Daisy remarks) and ends on a day that is “almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer.” Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which in many ways is intended as a rewriting of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece with the homosexual Arthur Lecomte in the Gatsby role, explicitly adopts the time frame. Its opening words are: “At the beginning of summer.” And it ends with a reflection upon what Chabon’s Carraway figure will remember of “that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer. . . .”

There must be other examples, but Chabon’s prose makes me yawn. I can’t think of any others.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Delta Wedding, that's a summer novel, a real August novel.

D. G. Myers said...

You’re right! Great suggestion. Which reminds me. The Member of the Wedding. First sentence: “It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.”