A Double Fortnight's Summer Reading from Independent School’s Books Columnist
I imagine all of us are looking forward to the end of an exceptionally tumultuous school year, easily the most unsettling since the one that began in September 2001. Summer gives us a chance for a more reflective look at these times, comparison to other eras, and escape from our immediate concerns into wider, deeper, or simply different contexts and perspectives. This list was carefully chosen to provide escape, but not escapism.
Maria Popova, “Brain Pickings: Weekly Newsletter” (www.brainpickings.org)
No, it’s not a book (nor a typical blog) but an inspiring “long read” selection of great writings on universal concerns. Some random samples: Alan Turing on love and loss, Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Hannah Arendt on how tyrants use loneliness as a weapon of oppression. Popova, a Bulgarian immigrant once denied a U.S. visa, offers consolation, inspiration, and explanation at a time when all are sorely needed.
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell
Solnit may well be the most influential essayist writing today. While Thomas Hardy said a way to the better “exacts a full look at the worst,” Solnit has a gift for observing the better within the worst, even after taking the full look.
Writing about community resilience during natural disaster in A Paradise, balancing paired essays on “When We Lost” and “What We Won,” in Hope in the Dark, or explicating Virginia Woolf’s paradoxical World War I observation, “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think” in Men Explain, Solnit argues that “we can change the world, because we have many times before.” Simply reading Hope in the Dark, which was written more than 10 years ago and recently updated, is an antidote to easy despair.
Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time
Barnes’s novel opens with Dmitri Shostakovich waiting by the elevator outside his apartment so he won’t disturb his family when the NKVD come to take him away. The novel depicts the years of external, and imagined internal, struggles, and occasional victories, of Shostakovich under the omnipresent oversight of Stalinism. The composer’s continued presence in concert halls throughout the world today affirms Barnes’s assertion that “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. “
Louis de Bernieres, The Dust That Falls from Dreams
Renowned for Corelli’s Mandolin and well-known for works set in Latin America, Turkey, and Australia, de Bernieres recently began writing about English life. As he put it, "I realized that I had set so many of my novels and stories abroad, because custom had prevented me from seeing how exotic my own country is. Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum.” This alternately somber, lyrical, and funny story of English life in the early 20th century goes well beyond his grim description.
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Summer still means baseball, and baseball, for many, means reading as much as watching. From The Natural to Shoeless Joe (aka Field of Dreams) to The Summer Game to Why Time Begins on Opening Day, baseball seems to bring out the best in writers. Harbach’s is one of the more recent examples, an amalgam about academia, imagination, love, and most of all the impossible yet imperative quest for perfection. The novel, in fact, inverts Roger Angell’s words about the art of hitting: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep fielding, hold the rally off, and you have defeated time.”
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
Is there something about this moment that has piqued our interest in the history of 20th century Russia? The gentleman, Count Alexander Rostov, is not merely in Moscow, but confined for life to the Metropole Hotel in 1922, on penalty of death, as a counter-revolutionary. Over more than three decades he constructs a meaningful and sometimes pleasant life under the nose of the bureaucracy. In the end, he exemplifies Faulkner’s hope that mankind will not only endure, but prevail.
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Begin on a Georgia plantation with all the cruelties one imagines there. Then jump on a literal Underground Railroad with a fleeing woman, to observe, in several real, Southern states, with familiar names but imagined societies, the many ways the United States has brutalized African-Americans over the centuries. Whitehead combines his own version of magical realism with a modern allegory that could stand beside Gulliver’s Travels.
History and Current Events
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
This story of a Muslim family trapped in poverty, prejudice, and police corruption in a Mumbai slum delves as deeply into its characters and their experiences as any third-world novel, yet is based on exhaustive and documented research. As the powerless and the slightly more powerful turn on each other, the advance of globalization, in the literal form of bulldozers, wipes their meager hopes away with the indifference of a tsunami.
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning
Using four exemplary figures (Cotton Mather, Jefferson, Garrison, Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis) from American history, Kendi argues that racism has always presented two faces: one, that people of color are inherently and permanently inferior, and the other, which often infects even anti-racist views, that this inferiority is real, but can gradually be eliminated by environmental and cultural shifts toward “whiteness.” Real anti-racism requires scrapping both notions, along with “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”
Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World
Drawing on long-ignored documents of the New Amsterdam colony, Shorto argues that many entrepreneurial, individualistic, cosmopolitan, and tolerant characteristics of American and other modern cultures derive from the Stuyvesants, Minuits, and others who, in only 20 years of rule, left behind far more than the Dutch names for three of New York’s five boroughs. Nicely paired with his earlier Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.
Memoir and Biography
Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag
Yes, one more true story of daring and ingenuity from the espionage fields of World War II, but this one is different. Our “hero,” an unscrupulous English bigamist and petty criminal becomes first a prisoner of the German forces occupying the Channel Islands, then their lead actor in the campaign to infiltrate and undermine Great Britain. The question: How many spots can a leopard change, and how many times?
Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
There’s a church in Denver called The Church of All Saints and Sinners. If anyone deserves dual canonization there, it’s Leonard Cohen, whose passing was eulogized by Buddhist monks, rabbis, Jewish intellectual Leon Wieseltier, and an Italian-Catholic cardinal. Simmons chronicles the often terrible, frequently admirable, and always fascinating life of the poet-musician, to just before his death. Almost as good as hearing his songs of five decades.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy and James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
Vance and Rebanks could hardly be more similar, or more different. Both are rurally born, highly educated observers of their home cultures: Appalachia and the English Lake District. But where Vance ambiguously elegizes a culture in crisis, in which work and will have vanished, Rebanks lauds a proud society resistant to the lures of modernity, dependent on a skilled profession that brings honor and community, if not wealth.
P.L. Gaus, The Amish Mysteries
In a New York Times book review recently, Chelsea Clinton said she read few mysteries, but could be persuaded to live in Louise Penny’s Quebec Village of Three Pines, if it existed. Gaus’s Amish country does exist, in central Ohio, and his locally set novels combine the spiritual values of these pacific people with the world’s intrusions that sometimes require the help of more secular folks, including a college professor, a carpenter-preacher, and a world-weary sheriff.
Peter May, Entry Island; The Blackhouse
May is fascinated with offshore islands where unique peoples hold to ancient traditions and old grudges. From the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Hebrides, May depicts geography, geology, and social mores with erudition and insight. By the time you’ve finished, your vocabulary will have expanded beyond the familiar “loch” to such words as “machair,” “guga,” and “galloch,” and your perspective will have broadened similarly.
Nature and Art
Andrew Dickson, Worlds Elsewhere
Not planning to go to any of the several Stratfords this year? You needn’t leave Shakespeare behind. Dickson’s examination of Shakespearian transmutations from Weimar to Shanghai, Cape Town to Kolkata, shows that the Bard has put a girdle ’round the earth, though it may lie under a sari, dashiki, or kung fu suit.
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of An Octopus
Ever wonder what that eight-legged creature is thinking as it stares back at you through the glass of its aquarium tank? Plenty, it seems. Montgomery delights with tales of daring octopus escapes, and their judgments of us, expressed in tender touches or sudden drenchings. After reading this you may confine your summer dining to mollusks and crustaceans, avoiding the brainy cephalopod.
Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty
We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that notions of beauty differ from culture to culture, age to age. But Six Names shows us how even the words for beauty denote different realms of experience. I had always wondered, for example, why the Navajo people chanted “It is finished in beauty” at someone’s deathbed, until Sartwell explained that the Navajo hozho means beauty as harmony, coherence. From English to Japanese, and back in time to Greek and Sanskrit, the names of beauty, like the names of God in many religions, are all different, and all true.
Words and Pictures
Richard McGuire, Here
A simple title for a complex, mostly visual experience. Nearly 600 subtly colored pictures, many overlaid on a single page, cover 110 years in the life of a house, as seen from the same angle in its living room, plus occasional detours into earlier centuries, prehistoric time, and the near and distant future. Death, birth, and violence, but primarily ordinary life events, which sometimes seem to re-echo. Is there a theme? Many? Pop songs provide an occasional clue, but you could spend days trying to connect all the pieces of this “graphic novel,” “mash-up,” “short story,” “photo album” — it’s been called all of these. All I can say is, “You have to be there.”
Rebecca Solnit et. al., The Atlas Series (Nonstop Metropolis, Infinite City, Unfathomable City)
Guidebooks are hybrids of usually pedestrian cartography and occasionally lively writing, but Rebecca Solnit — yes, her again — and a community of contemporary writers and mapmakers have created a whole new creature: the beautiful, eccentric, and literate coffee table vade mecum to (so far) New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The New York volume alone covers 26 Gothams, from Melville’s historic haunts to hoopsters and hip-hop. But you have to read them at home or do some heavy lifting: They are, quite rightly, not available on Kindle.
Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York, and Little Humans
Stanton’s ongoing photo collections, taken over the past decade or so, have been made possible by an unerring eye, combined an emotional intelligence that connects him to his willing subjects. Whether accompanied by his commentary (“For one fleeting moment, this kid may have been the happiest person in the world”) or his subject’s words (“I’m training myself to lucid dream”), these pictures are building a Human Comedy to rival Balzac’s — and maybe Dante’s.
ALSO SEE: NAIS President Donna Orem's summer reading recommendations.