Summer Reading

I feel as if my mind has been scattered all over the place these past few weeks, and that if I don’t pause for a moment to take stock and regain focus, the summer will slip past me in that agreeably unproductive way that is so frustrating in hindsight. It’s all this doing – how does anyone ever keep a clear mind in the midst of running hither and thither among jobs and chores and seeing people? I gain some satisfaction from being able to do more these days, but in another way, I much prefer life when it’s neater and quieter. Part of the problem, I think, is that I have no set routine. Each week is different, and so I never settle down into a pattern that I can tweak until I get the right balance.

But I do have reading and writing plans for summer, and I should get a grip on them. I agreed a couple of weeks ago to write an essay on Gabriel Josipovici, and the editor needs it quite swiftly. I feel a bit uneasy about it, as I have the opportunity here to write a more academic piece than I’ve done in quite a while. Since I’ve been struggling for the past three years to remove the more pedantic academic elements from my writing, you’d think this would represent a chance to relax, or at least to tighten up again, into a more familiar style. But I’m worried that I’ve forgotten how it’s done.

There is such a huge chasm between academic and popular writing. In academic work, you begin with all the information you are obliged to get out of the way –contextualisation, for instance, justification for choosing a particular topic or perspective, historical or biographical information, and from that you gradually tease out your themes and your argument, and you build it up brick by brick, checking regularly that there are no gaps or inconsistencies. In popular work it’s all the other way round – you begin with your choicest, sweetest point, tell intriguing stories and bury the argument in a swarm of jolly or curious anecdotes, ever fearful that the reader’s attention will stray unless repeatedly persuaded to remain. In academic work you imagine the reader as fully engaged but hostile and nit-picking, in popular work you imagine the reader as feckless and easily bored but willing to laugh and be entertained. It just makes for very different sorts of writing experiences.

It’s also meant that I’ve been plundering my carefully hoarded store of work by Josipovici. I’ve got two books left unread: Moo Pak and Goldberg: Variations, two of his most highly acclaimed novels. Do I have enough material without them, thus saving them up for the future, or should I read them in case one or other turns out to be really important to what I want to write about? Or do I start rereading (as I must) the books I know I want to discuss? The uncertainty is paralysing me at the moment.

Beyond this essay there are two others I want to write this summer – one on Kafka and one on Colette, so there’s plenty of reading to be done in preparation for those. And then I’ve got some wonderful books from the library that I really must read before they have to be returned – a biography of Rilke, one of Willa Cather, and Al Alvarez’s book on suicidal poets, A Savage God. I’ve also got two books of psychoanalytic essays that I really want to spend some time with.

And then the fun reading! I’m so glad that this year I have readalongs organised with blogging friends, because it can be very quiet online in the summer, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some reading experiences with virtual friends. I’m currently rereading Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale for the Slaves – a very different experience for me than when I read it in my early twenties.

Then there’s Capote’s In Cold Blood – shall we say we can post on this book at any time during or after the last weekend in July?

Angela Carter’s Wise Children – posting during the week 8th-15th August?

Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – posting the last week in August? (From Sunday 28th August onwards)

I’ve got two review copies I really wanted and am looking forward to immensely – Helen Humpreys’ The Reinvention of Love, about Victor Hugo and Charles Saint-Beuve and the woman they both loved, and Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern, a gothic thriller set in the South of France with shades of Rebecca. I wish I were better at getting pictures placed in a post – both have gorgeous covers.

Finally there are a large number (as ever!) of books that are insistently calling my name from my stacks. Including Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Sarah Winman’s When God Was A Rabbit, Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill (a 17th  century tale of witch hunts), Darcy O’Brian’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other (forgotten NYRB modern classic about lives of Hollywood families), Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park (family story of a Bombay letter-writer) and Deborah Davis’ Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (about the society girl Virginie Gautreau who suffered a dreadful fall from grace when Sargent painted her portrait with one strap hanging, shockingly, off her shoulder).

Okay, good! It’s helpful to write it all out and get it clearer in my mind. Although looking over that list, I think perhaps I should simply cancel all my engagements from now until the autumn and get reading! I don’t know, summer’s lovely for its gentle indolence, but on the other hand, I know I’ll kick myself if I haven’t got the most from the light and the time and the sense of spaciousness.


21 thoughts on “Summer Reading

  1. After I completed my dissertation I almost fell into a rebellion of sorts with anything academic. I compare the way I felt after 8 years of imbibing academic texts to when a person eats too much ice cream and gets sick. I just didn’t want to eat any more ice cream for a while. Lately, I’ve felt myself slowly beginning to think about “ice cream” again but I’m incredibly selfish and only want the very best and most relevant texts…if the academic text is going to take me away from my TBR pile, it dang well better be good 🙂
    I love summer but the constant schedule change makes me crazy…I’m usually ready to go back to work in the fall for no other reason than to get back to a more predictable daily schedule.
    The Reinvention of Love and Lantern sound incredible…I’m adding them to my Wishlist :):)

  2. ‘The Summer Without Men’ is one of the few non-work books I’ve managed to read over the past three or four weeks and I really very much enjoyed it, so I’ll be interested in what you think. Sorry I haven’t got back to your e-mail. The invite still stands and I’ll be in touch in a few days.

  3. Most people like ot read “light” stuf during the summer but I like to read deep and complex stuff during the summer because it is the only time I can concentrate enough to take it in. I read fluffy stuff during the school year.

  4. What a great text you have written on writing! I have done both academic and popular writing, and have come to prefer to work outside the institution.

    This might seem extremely boring, but to be honest I must admit I love uneventful ordinary days. In my daily life I find lack of rhythm and regularity to be extremely disturbing, especially when writing (or planning to write – which is what I end up doing in “noisy” weeks). I think I need a set structure when my brain is trying to create something: The chaos inside calls for “unexciting” and calm surroundings. Summer can be difficult because life in the family becomes unpredictable – on a social level its all very positive, but never the less challenging for one who needs lots of space for her own thoughts.

    You mention an essay you plan to write on Kafka. Will you be writing on a singular book or on his authorship?

    I read Al Alvarez earlier this spring, first “The Writer’s Voice” and then “A Savage God”, hope you get around to read him too. I have also read “The Summer Without Men” and are curious to hear your view? Have you read her earlier work?

    Looking very much forward to follow your writing through the sumer!

  5. The two Josipovici’s that you haven’t read are the two that I have read and they are both brilliant. I can guarantee that if you read them for your essay you will enjoy them immensely and want to read them again sometime just for fun. But then again, I like the sound of cancelling all engagements for the summer and just getting lost in all those books you have lined up.

  6. I loved Goldberg: Variations, so I think you should read it (not very long) and include it. But I do appreciate the need to set realistic limits. By the way I just ordered GJ’s book about his mother, after reading your review.

    Siri Hustvedt’s A Summer Without Men is a strange book that I found a bit disappointing. If it was by anyone else but her, whose last two novels, What I Loved and Sorrows of an American are both among my favourite novels EVER, I probably would have felt more positive towards it, though.

    I wish you very happy reading and writing!

  7. It’s always hard to strike a balance between getting to enjoy that summery indolence and not leaving the season feeling like you got absolutely nothing accomplished. Not having a yard (we live in a condo) I actually find myself more challenged to get out & enjoy the nice weather during the summer – if I don’t make time, I tend to spend all my time inside working on various projects. Not that they’re all work-related. Oh no. 🙂

    Sounds like you have some great reading plans for the upcoming months!

  8. I so enjoyed Cakes and Ale–I have to check when the date is for talking about it. I hope I haven’t missed it! I figured I’d know bec I’d see the reviews start to come out. It sounds like a great reading summer–and I enjoyed the way you described the difference between academic and popular writing. I’m sure your papers will be fabulous and once you get going it’ll all come back quickly.

  9. I liked your description of the distinctions between academic and popular writing. I kind of knew them, but couldn’t clarify them the way you have. Anyway, I hope you get the chance for some lazy summer reading – there is a lot to be said for the pleasures of the text!

  10. I dream of having a structured life, but I have never really been able to create one for myself. Why I continue to dream about something that doesn’t seem possible is beyond me. I really like your description of the difference between academic and popular writing, and the audiences for each. You are so smart about things like that, so helpful and also so non-judgmental. It’s easy to privilege one sort of writing over another, and to be mistaken in doing so. Your reading list sounds wonderful — I feel almost like I’ve read more than I have, having just read over your list. Hope it’s a lovely summer so far! xoxo

  11. Ah, there’s the rub – enjoying the light and the sense of spaciousness that summer bestows.
    Surrender to it.
    Take a pile of books outdoors or to a part and indulge.

    Ah, that it were that easy. First we have to make deals with our families and ourselves to let go and go read. It IS productive and fruitful, summer reading is. And it inspires more writing, I think.

    I enjoyed your riff on academic writing – it’s so true. It’s so comfortable in a way to know its requirements and fulfill them and then stretch out into one’s point. But writing (journastically) is so open (anymore) and fun sometimes to discover what it is one actually wants to tell about something.
    ANd then there’s writing “just because.” How I love it. It’s often pointless, it’s often just to work something out, it often does go somewhere, as in
    morphing into a story.
    I digress.

    Always such a pleasure to read here, see what you’ve find, what you’ve unearthed in bookworld that honestly, I’ve just not heard of/been aware of.

    and I would LOVE to read your piece you write on Colette.

    more later,

  12. I’m in for Cold Blood if that’s alright. I really want to read ‘If God Was a Rabbit’ soon, but keep putting it off in the way I always do with books I’m sure will be great. Any chance you want to read it together say at the end of August, for motivation to remember the fun reading? (It’s Jodie btw, don’t know why but I seem to end up logging in to lots of people’s comment systems with the wordpress account I don’t use).

  13. Patti – oh that is so resonant with me! Yes, exactly that sort of biliousness with academic work – and it really DOES have to be a wonderful academic book these days for it to get my interest. I am probably crippling myself with the feeling that I have to do something as good myself… I’m so reassured it’s not just me who finds the summer lack of routine a bit discombobulating – I feel just the same about having a routine, even though I do love lying in bed late in the mornings and not having to put packed lunches together! I’d love to know what you think of The Lantern and The Reinvention of Love if you get to read them.

    Annie – that makes me very keen to start The Summer Without Men! Really, don’t hurry with anything – your credit is excellent with me. We’ve got plenty of time. 🙂

    Celawerd – yes, I can see how that could happen. I do need to be feeling relaxed and spacious when I pick up a book I’m looking forward to as a challenge. And often in the depths of winter I’m good for nothing but comfort reads and crime. 🙂

    Sigrun – I completely agree – I need unexciting, ordinary days for any sort of writing. Routine can help that because I know when there’ll be time for me. Actually, I really like life best when it’s a bit dull, no matter what I’m doing – it’s so much more conducive to a rich inner life. The Kafka piece is a bit strange – I’m actually writing on essays about Kafka, in which the author treats him as a ‘friend’; I found that intriguing and wanted to think why Kafka would make a good literary friend – why that should be, when on the face of it his work is far from comforting. I’ve read a couple of Hustvedt’s books before, but I have lots of her work still ahead of me (good) and looking forward a lot to that Alvarez book, too. It’s lovely to have you along and I’m looking forward to hearing more about your summer, too!

    Stefanie – as it’s turned out, I think I’ve decided to run with what I’ve got (Contre-Jour, A Life, In A Hotel Garden and Everything Passes, in case you’re interested!). I am SO looking forward to reading both those Josipovici’s but I don’t mind putting it off a bit, to savour the pleasure and to enjoy all those other lovely books!

    Jean – hmmm, might pick up Sorrows of an American, too, as I have that and value your endorsement. I am so looking forward to Goldberg: Variations, although I might put it to one side now. Well, I’ve got four texts to go on with and I think I’ll reassess as I’m actually writing the thing. Sometimes you have to do it on the hop! Whatever happens, I know I’ll love Goldberg when I get to it.

    Emily – oh that really reminds me of when I was living in Cambridge before I got married and was always renting rooms, never having a proper garden. You DO have to really make an effort to find what isn’t naturally to hand, don’t you? I’m looking forward to hearing all about your projects, for work or play, over the summer!

  14. Lilian – so glad you enjoyed it! We’ll post on the last day of the month, so you’re in good time. And thank you for the encouragement – I’m sure something will come together somehow!

    Nicola – believe me, it’s something I’ve had to think about a LOT over the past few years! And thank you for the good wishes – may your summer be full of wonderful books, too. 🙂

    Bloglily – hope sort of springs eternal, doesn’t it? Do you think it’s children that make routine impossible? Even though children are supposed to be the reasons we have routine at all…. or at least they have very structured spaces to their lives (usually when we’re not around) and the rest is up for grabs (when we are). I love reading summer reading lists – like I love to know what people are taking on holiday to read. It does give you that sense of spaciousness and promise! And you are very sweet – I just have a picky mind that hates judgements but is really interested in distinctions….

    Oh – you always write such sweet comments, like bloglily! It’s boiling hot here at the moment and I did get to spend yesterday afternoon in the garden reading. Such things are easier now my son is older, although I do like to be readily available if needed! When it comes to writing I confess I am much better with regulations and requirements. I still seem to need to know exactly where I’m going and why if I’m to get anything productive out of myself. I love the thought of freer writing, think I should practice it, and yet if I don’t have an audience in mind (at least at first) then nothing appears…. maybe that will change with time. As for Colette – that is a dangerous offer to make. I’d love for you to read it once it’s done, if you turn out to have the time and the inclination later in the year. 🙂

    Jeanne – I think I would never have written a word if I’d thought the audience would be hard to interest when I began in academia! But in any case, it is self-selecting and so it is always engaged.

    Emily – the Capote was where we began, wasn’t it? I’m just delighted to be reading that with you.

    Jodie – Yes!! Definitely up for When God Was A Rabbit – I’d love to read that with you. End of August, beginning September sounds just great to me. I’m loving readalongs – they are such fun. Delighted you’re up for Capote, too. 🙂

    • Cool! Shall we say first week in September then as I think I’m on a hen do the last week in August. Exciting 🙂

  15. I’m looking forward to discussing the Maugham novel; I just finished it today, so I’m all ready! Your list of summer books looks great, and your writing projects sound intriguing. I hope you will share more on those one day!

  16. I like hearing about others’ reading plans–I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes to think about reading (almost as much as the actual reading….almost….). I could never do the sort of writing that you do, but thankfully you and others do it, as I like reading it. Interesting how the two types of writing differ. I’ll pull out my copy of the Capote. I’m going to be late with poor Maugham since I am trying hard to finish a library book due tomorrow, that I think will have to go back late….oops. And I am very curious about the new Humphreys book and have the Madam X on my pile as well–so am looking forward to hearing what you have to say about them particularly.

  17. Sounds like you have a full summer of reading and writing ahead of you. Hopefully the writing that you are obligated to do will not put you under any pressure. You have a wonderful fun list of reading. I can’t wait to read all about it and the essays you are working on.

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