A few days ago, The New Yorker featured a podcast called “The Season For Reading,” with staff-writers James Wood and Kathryn Schulz, in which summer reading was discussed. Not your usual roundup of beach reads, this was a meditation, in pod form, about the kinds of self-improving projects some readers set for themselves over the summer: to read Ulysses, say, or Dante’s Inferno. (If you didn’t realize that summer reading projects are a thing, then perhaps you are not like James Wood, who as a child made it a habit each Christmas day to read one classic American novel.)
These days, I consider sitting down to read at all quite a project in itself. With a job, a house, and two children under the age of ten, I find that most of my intellectual time is spent on questions like “Should I answer this email now, or is it weird if it’s time-stamped 3:20 a.m.?” or “Where are all these ants coming from?” or “Why does the cat keep knocking over the bridge I built for the ponies? Augghghh!”
However, I do enjoy reading during the warmer months, and I have in the past undertaken several summer reading projects that have either stuck in my memory or been revealed by a quick study of my Goodreads account. They are presented in reverse chronological order so as to emphasize my devolution as a reader and systematic thinker.
Looking at my much-neglected Goodreads account, I see that last summer I started reading Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father on July 12 and that, according to my Goodreads landing page, I am still reading it.
I remember that day: Saturday, July 12, 2014. I was at a family reunion at a wilderness camp in western Pennsylvania. I stole an hour away from my family, left the lodge where we were staying, and stretched out on one of the rough-hewn chaises surrounding the fire circle to start my summer reading project. Before I actually started, I guess I updated my Goodreads app to let the world know: I’m doing this.
Twenty minutes later, a couple on a motorcycle rode up and decided to sit in the circle, too. They were nice enough, but very chatty. Apparently, that was all it took to derail last summer’s reading project.
Three summers before that, in 2011, Goodreads tells me that I managed to read a pair of books in June: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson and Edward Conlon’s novel of the NYC police, Red on Red. I remember declining several trips to the pool (as well as reading during my lunch hour at work) to make those reads happen.
Was it worth it? Yes. But keep in mind that I mostly hate going to the pool. It’d be fine if you could just sit in the pool and read a book. But people give you dirty looks. Especially during the time set aside for lap swimming.
During in the summer of 2004, I was going to read Lydia Davis’s new translation of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I’d gotten through the Moncrieff translation for a lit class in my sophomore year of college, and had vowed to someday read all seven massively verbose volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel. The occasion of a new edition, each volume newly translated by a different author, seemed ideal.
I went to the park every day to read Proust and to work on my own massively verbose novel. Would the critics want to call me “The American Proust?” Well, let them! My novel’s long and torturous sentences would reflect the consciousnesses of its characters to an extent that movies and television just couldn’t touch. Take that, motion picture arts!
A month and a half into this project and I was neglecting both my reading and my writing in favor of on-demand episodes of The Wire and The Sopranos. Hey, if I make one of my characters a detective, shorten some of the sentences, and actually make this thing readable, can I still be called “The American Proust?”
[I did not finish Davis’s translation, nor any of the other books. I also didn’t finish writing that novel. You’re welcome.]
During the summer of 1991, I was living in my first real apartment. It had one good-sized room, a tiny kitchen, red shag carpeting, and a walk-in closet. On second thought, I’m not sure “real” and “apartment” are the best words to describe that place.
I got some cinder blocks and pine planks to make a bookshelf, and my landlord thoughtfully remembered a mattress abandoned in the utility room next to the Coke machine. I found a half-time job working at the library for the Math Department. None of my friends were in town. I was all set for a summer of reading and surviving on cheese sandwiches.
The university main library had an extensive fiction collection. I can’t remember everything I read that summer, but I’m sure there was a lot of Nabokov. I read everything that had so far been written by Madison Smartt Bell. And I know there was a lot of Faulkner, because I can remember a Library of America edition with its onion-skin paper and tiny print.
I picked the Faulkner volume that I happened to find on the library shelf. The others must have been checked out. It contained the complete novels As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and also Pylon, Faulkner’s not-well-known-for-a-reason novel of airplane racing in a fictionalized, Depression-era New Orleans. I lay on my mattress in the middle of my red-carpeted room and read them all.
I remember talking with another writer a few years after this and telling him all the Faulkner I’d read. “You read all the worst novels of Faulkner!” he exclaimed. Then he laughed and laughed.
Robin Beery lives in Indianapolis and gets most of his reading done when he’s sick, or can’t sleep.
Photo by Toby Hudson (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGoulds_Book_Arcade_BookStack.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.