Summer Reading

A devoted reader writes to ask, “What should I be reading this summer?”


July 9, 2007

A devoted reader writes to ask, “What should I be reading this summer?”

I too like reading lists. They’re the equivalent of standing in other people’s houses, reading the titles of their books with your head turned sideways, holding a drink, while they trot out to the kitchen to fix you a snack.

Anybody’s reading list will do, since I’ll rarely read the books on it anyway. Usually I scan a list in order to:

  1. See if I’ve already read what they’ve read, so I can feel superior
  2. Disdain their poor taste (she still reads Rand?)
  3. Feel the pleasure of viewing things I’ll never buy, as one might feel window-shopping on 5th Avenue (“Ooh, look at the exotic setting of that late Mailer novel…I’ll bet Madonna has one on her shelf.”)

Interesting lists may be found all around, such as this one by Donald Barthelme, this one by the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, these from UC Berkeley faculty and staff, and these by anybody else with a finger to type it with.

But there’s a difference between what should be read and what is being read. The former, having been finished, assimilated, mulled over, and categorized, is inflicted on others—it’s didactic. The latter is in process and therefore somewhat ignorant. Isn’t that a lot more fun, hopeful, and perhaps visceral? Here, then, are the titles currently on my nightstand, in no particular order, of which I’m mostly ignorant but am thoroughly enjoying:

Poems are Hard to Read. William Meredith. U of Michigan Press, 1991.
This is one of the books in the series of essay collections called Poets on Poetry, Donald Hall, General Editor. I’ve read half a dozen titles and loved them all. Meredith, who won the Pulitzer and a National Book Award, died at the end of May. He seems to have known everyone, and this one is worth it just for his recollections of W.H. Auden. (He quotes Auden on an “instructive death”: “Bert Savoy, the famous female impersonator, was watching a thunderstorm with some friends. ‘There’s Miss God at it again,’ he exclaimed and was instantly struck dead by lightning.”)

February House. Sherill Tippins. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Speaking of Auden, here’s a nonfiction book about him sharing a house in Brooklyn, on the eve of America’s entry to WWII, with the novelist Carson McCullers, the composer Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. The bizarre salon and experiment in communal living was set up by a fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Parties there attracted the likes of Aaron Copland, George Balanchine, Louis Untermeyer, Janet Flanner, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Salvador Dali, and Thomas Mann.

The Beatles. Allan Kozinn. Phaidon, 1995.
Kozinn has been a music critic for the New York Times since 1977, and this book is part of the series 20th Century Composers, placing Lennon/McCartney in the company of other subjects such as Bartók, Ravel, Prokofiev, Cage, Glass, and Coltrane. Since I’m a superfan, I read it in a day, thrilling at sentences that read, “The most distinctive touch, however, was the piccolo trumpet, played by David Mason. McCartney had seen Mason use the Baroque instrument in a televised performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, and captivated by the sound, he had [George] Martin invite Mason to play on his [“Penny Lane”]. My only complaint is that the book has the feeling of speeding up as it goes, and I wish I could read more. Includes a bibliography and selective discography.

The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1975-2005. U of California Press, 2006.
Among other gems there are short, witty poems. Here’s “Riddle”: “What’d you throw it on the floor for? / Who the hell you think you are / come in here / push me around.”
And this is “Provincetown”: “Could walk on water backwards / to the very place / and all around was sand / where grandma dug, bloomers up, / with her pail, for clams.”

The Nasty Bits. Anthony Bourdain. Bloomsbury, 2006.
Going by this collection of odds and ends published originally in Gourmet, the Independent, Town & Country, and elsewhere, Bourdain has it in him to be even more entertaining than he’s allowed to be as the host of the travel-food series No Reservations on cable TV: “The episodes then go to the network, which usually asks for surprisingly few revisions: a couple bleeps, cut out the sodomy jokes, the direct drug references, the offensive-to-major-religion stuff, the McDonald’s-as-center-of-all-evil type of thing.” When he tries to get macho or to channel Hunter Thompson, he’s not a good writer, but when he sticks to showing us cultures as he sees them as a professional foodie, he’s evocative and thoughtful.

On Food and Cooking. Harold McGee. Scribner, 2004.
This isn’t a summer treat; it’s year-round sustenance. McGee got to the study of the scientific processes behind our preparation of food by way of astronomy and English literature, and he’s just plain fascinating to read, as many polymaths are. The index to this 884-page book starts with “Abalone” and finishes with “ Zygosaccharomyces bisporus,” and along the way he talks about everything from fish fermentation in cultures all over the world to how a coconut “contains both solid and liquid endosperm to feed the small embryo” in the husk. There are tips on cooking eggplant (and everything else), and charts containing the chemical flavor components of common herbs; he even tells you the etymology of words, such as pomegranate (“from medieval French…a combination of Latin roots meaning ‘apple’ and ‘grainy’ or ‘seedy’”). To cleanse the palate after Bourdain.

Imagining Paris. J. Gerald Kennedy. Yale UP, 1993.
Kennedy takes up one of my own preoccupations: What is place, and what does it mean to represent a place in narrative? Here, of course, he deals with the “ axis mundi,” the city at the center of the world, and how it “affected the career of each writer [mostly Stein, Hemingway, Miller and Fitzgerald] and how Paris became for each a complex image of the possibilities of metamorphosis.” Accessible to nonacademic readers.

Lincoln’s Sword. Douglas L. Wilson. Knopf, 2007.
Lincoln as the great reviser. For those of us who revise heavily, professionally, it’s a balm to read of his process. As Wilson points out, “Lincoln was not a national hero” as president, and “was beset by critics on all sides.” But his careful attention to words allowed his writings to achieve “transcendent meaning as contributions to the permanent literary treasure of the nation.” I like best, so far, the descriptions of Lincoln keeping many small scraps of paper, each covered in spidery notes, in his tall hat; when he wanted to write a speech, he took the scraps out, ordered them, drafted a coherent text, then revised multiple times.

A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writing of Louise Bogan. Ed. Mary Kinzie. Swallow Press/Ohio UP, 2005.
There are certain women—brilliant, beautiful, long dead—I’ve fallen in love with instantly. Dear, lovely, sarcastic Anne Sexton is one; Louise Bogan is another. This book is a mishmash of fiction, journals and memoir, letters, criticism, and uncollected poems. Bogan in a letter to Theodore Roethke, August 23, 1935: “Dear Ted: The difficulty with you now, as I see it, is that you are afraid to suffer, or to feel in any way, and that is what you’ll have to get over, lamb pie, before you can toss off the masterpieces.”


You’ll note there’s no fiction in my current summer reading. I’m preparing to lecture on the history of the short story in the fall, and I have had it with fiction. Fiction is over. It’s so over, in fact, that I’m writing a novel to reinvigorate the form, which will be at the top of my recommendations for summer reading in 2014.


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