Summer reads

Time to unplug and get lost in a good book

photo by jason cassidy

It’s harder to tell all the time if these are halcyon or dark days indeed for the reading public. The myriad ways to consume books are proliferating and at war with one another—the Kindle versus the iPad versus the Nook versus good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores striving every day to rescue hardcover fiction from total obsolescence.

The sheer amount of information available to us and competing for our attention on a daily basis is at an all-time high, accompanied by concerns from writers, psychologists, scientists and teachers that our mental faculty for investing in and responding to a long-ranging and multitiered piece of writing is ever diminishing. Apparently, we are becoming lazy readers, and yet we show no signs of stopping in our demand for more texts to fill our leisure time, and there certainly is no dearth of material to fill whatever few minutes we do find free.

How is the reader—simultaneously alienated and anointed by written and digital culture—to act amid so many options and judgments? This is why summer exists. It is now the time when one may take one’s head out of a tyrannical fog of too many options and recalibrate by taking the time to read all the way through one decent book.

Here are a few recommendations—both new and old—for filling your summer days with the rich, strange pleasures that engaging deeply with a book can provide.

This summer sees the release of a number of narratives by writers with proven track records of true talent. Jennifer Egan’s rock ’n’ roll odyssey A Visit From the Goon Squad; Aimee Bender’s surreal fairytale The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Marisa Silver’s poignant exploration of melancholy Alone With You; and Gary Shteyngart’s social satire Super Sad True Love Story in particular should prove to be worth devoting several evenings. Segments from each of their newest have shown the unfolding of distinctive stories filled with the sorts of mistakes and epiphanies that make our own lives seem somehow larger, weirder and more full of wonder.

One of the most anticipated releases of the year would be Jonathan Franzen’s massive new Freedom: A Novel, his first since 2001’s incredibly successful and polarizing The Corrections: A Novel (the only to have been selected for and then dis-invited from Oprah’s book club). Freedom has been briefly excerpted in The New Yorker and looks to be in the same vein of darkly funny domestic drama infused with wit and heartache.

“Postmodern” writer David Markson’s recent death has cast some light on a lifetime of work that seems especially relevant to our lives ever-more dotted with distractions and obligations. Markson was a writer of remarkably unique sensitivities, with eyes and ears attuned to a world tipping toward hyperactivity. If there ever was a time for his novels—without much care for plot construction, or even organizational devices as simple as paragraphs, but full of emotive force rendering a fragmented world readable—it is now. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, released in 1988, is a collection of curious one-lined philosophical insights of the sort that brains shaped and fed by Twitter feeds and Facebook updates could possibly now be built for.

And in a world of ever-new technological advancement, there is simply so much on our shelves that sits passed over, forgotten. A cursory glance through your library will almost certainly prove that there’s something you’ve been meaning to read for a while that could lend unexpected insight into your current experience. One of the powerful components of Chico/Chico State’s new Book-in-Common choice—The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer—is that its hero begins his journey in creating energy for his impoverished village by teaching himself from outdated science textbooks. Yanking a dusty copy of East of Eden off the shelf might feed you more about the world you are living in than watching CNN tonight could.

A trip to the used bookstore or the local library provides, at quite the fair price, a deep well of no-environmental-impact entertainment. In uncertain times, when clarity just seems to recede endlessly before us, it’s a comfort to know a revelation may be just a book away.