When I walked into a used bookstore located near Wilmington beach, I asked the helpful cashier to point me towards “light reading.” The overenthusiastic staff member tried to press Wharton and Twain on me. I explained that I’m a literature professor, but I was looking for something–I was about to use the phrase my students throw at me all the time–brainless. If my students read, this is the adjective that determines their choice of book. Since I try to guide them towards books that offer pleasure and edification, the summer-version of myself feels a little hypocritical when I reach for cheap paperbacks.
In full, embarrassing disclosure, I was seeking Twilight or The Hunger Games that day in the bookstore. After purchasing Age of Innocence and Humorous Stories out of chagrin, I attempted to read the last in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, and without exaggeration, I can say it is the worst book I have ever picked up. I will not recommend it. However, Suzanne Collins’ teen series, The Hunger Games, is a step up: all three books are entertaining (perfect for the beach or by the pool or as audiobooks for summer road trips) and surprisingly thought provoking, especially for anyone who has never read a dystopia novel such as 1984 or Oryx and Crake.
I love summer reading because there are no demands upon my list. I don’t have to re-read Hopkins’s sonnets before Tuesday or trudge through Harriet Jacobs’s diary and wonder again why I assigned a book I hadn’t read yet. Instead, I get to read anything—from economics or chemistry books, biographies, teen fiction, political satires. I have a longer book wish list on Amazon than my queue in Netflix, and that is saying something. People sometimes hesitate to recommend books to me because they’re afraid that, as a professor, I have an elitist stance towards books. True, reading is like drinking wine—you must develop your palate. Yet, while I will never pass up a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, I occasionally reach for a Shiner. Both have their time and place, and, for me, summer is the time for Shiner reading.
Travelling from library to library this summer, I sojourned at various friends’ and families’ homes, which means I added more books to my reading list. Out in California, a colleague told me I should pick up Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, that was the third time the book had been recommended to me—once by a stranger in an Austin bookstore who had just finished it in a book club and another time by a graduate student who was reading it for a fun summer read. So far, the book is intriguing, though a few medical passages have me twitching.
In Columbia, a friend at USC was in the middle of reading The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of worldwide culinary adventures by a Vogue food critic, and she could not stop praising it. In the introduction he confesses his food biases and then delineates a step-by-step program for learning to like Greek food and olives. After enjoying this book, I picked up Foer’s Eating Animals, Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I cannot get enough of books on food, blogs on food, articles on food.
When I visited my aunt in Greenville, she filled my passenger seat with a handful of novels she had recently finished, including The Help, The Paris Wife, and Unbroken. Though I have not picked up Hillenbrand’s novel about World War II, I’ve already had a chance to read the first two novels. With the movie coming out this August, I was anxious to read The Help. The story is moving; it makes you want to do the right thing, to listen to your gut and act with gumption. But, more than that, the various voices are relatable, humorous, and poignantly real. I hope the film can capture the joy of the novel. I read McLain’s The Paris Wife in one night. It reminded me of Austen’s Persuasion— probably because neither novel could I put down once I started—but also because it’s a love story told within a larger community. The story is from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Not only do you get to know Hemingway and see inside the life of a renowned writer, but also you meet Paris in the 1920s and she’s a lost gem. The Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others make unforgettable cameos in the narrative.
As the countdown is on to the end of summer, I begin listing how many fun-reads I’ll be able to fit in before an academic semester starts. Of course, as a friend remarked the other night at dinner, my job is basically “professional reader.” Even when I may have to limit my reading of Travels in Siberia to ten minutes a night, the rest of my hours are cuddled up in a recliner reading Paradise Lost and The Sound and the Fury and calling it work.