Beyond Beach Books

Beach blanket book time.

Posted Jun 26, 2011

Summer is now just a few days old. Students are out of school. Familiar routines are on hold till late August. Families will decamp across the next two precious months for vacation or visiting relatives (which may or may not be a vacation). College students are enjoying some down time, but often find themselves with too much free time. To avoid frittering away life on YouTube, I think summer is a great time to challenge oneself to read a good book-no, a great book. A big book. Something with teeth and bite, a transformative work. Not, in other words, your typical beach book that is not so much read as carried, flipped through, and stained with sun block or beer.

I queried friends on Facebook (not a scientific poll, I know, but hey, it's summer) and asked them what big books they read and loved once upon a time. Which ones, I asked, would they recommend to challenge others who will be whiling away the time in backyard hammocks, porch swings, Adirondack chairs, as well as on beach towels by the pool, lake, or ocean? And as for psychological content, viewed from the proper perspective, virtually any novel and more than a few non-fiction works will offer some psychological perspective on something, someone, or some idea. The following books are no exception (I provide links for some books, particularly less familiar titles).

Let's begin with a utopia and some dystopias. If you have not read Thoreau's Walden for time, that idyll on self-reliance and knowing one's place in the world may be a good place to begin. If, on the other hand, you want to wonder about darker visions for organized society, there is Orwell's 1984 (and his somewhat "lighter" Animal Farm) or Huxley's Brave New World. These books used to be regular reads in high school but my students tell me they are no longer in the high school canon, which may be a reason to become (re)acquainted with them. A recent addition to this list is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which injects a feminist twist into this genre. And for the truly brave reader who is looking for post-apocalyptic prose, there is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I am going to add Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents here, a short but good read that forges links between cultural advancement and the unavoidability of conflict between groups and nations, themes very much related to the worlds presented in these other books.

Whew--let's head for the light, shall we? How about some epic poems? One friend suggested Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body. I just finished Robert Fagles's wonderful translation of The Odyssey, which should be read aloud. I am now turning to his translation of The Iliad (yes, I have the order wrong, but I now feel more prepared to tackle the Trojan war).

Several friends suggested American-themed works with powerful messages. You would be hard pressed to find a more American novel than Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again (a truism college grads often mutter to themselves as they settle into sleeping on the couch). One friend championed William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, a work that chronicles American life between the early 30s and the 70s. Another advocated a colder eye on the nation's imperialistic tendencies by recommending Chalmers Johnson's Blowback books. Would-be journalists and social critics would do well to read The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a book chronicling the consequences of her husband's sudden death, is a very American portrait of how we navigate grief.

And what about some gentle pokes at life in academe? The humorous academic novel Lucky Jim by Kinsley Amis never loses its charm. Amis's classic might be read in tandem with the more serious work by Herman Hesse, Beneath the Wheels, a story of rebellion against how easily academic talent can be ground down by traditional expectations.

And finally there are works that defy simple classification. W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants is poignant portrayal of memory and meaning after the Holocaust. Little, Big is a hard-to-categorize fantasy of sorts written by John Crowley. One of the best summer books I ever read is John Fowles's The Magus, the story of a fantasy-or is it reality?-in a mysterious summer on a not-so-idyllic Greek isle. I am also encouraging everyone to read Montaigne's Complete Essays, a 16th century work that more or less founded the personal essay (and you will be surprised by the author's insights and prescience regarding contemporary life).

As my friends' reading suggestions indicate, passionate ideas still matter and still move us. Any one of these books is worth the time to read-and at this point, summer still feels endless, doesn't it? So, be brave. Put on your Wayfarers and pick up one of these books for you or the student in your life.

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