Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Winter Reading



I wore celery green shoes with no socks today and I was rewarded with 29 degrees. So be it.

This is my spring break but I can't do much breaking in this weather. I assumed that would be the case, so I checked out eight books on my first day off.


Much Ado About Nothing
Richard III
Merchant of Venice
The Friendly Shakespeare
On the Road
Gulliver's Travels
Borges' The Aleph and Other Stories
Heidegger's Poetry, Language, and Thought

Some of them have school importance, and some are for fun. But looking at my stack of books, and at the rotating piles of books that slipped in and out of my bag for the first half of the term, I began to wonder what idiot coined the term "summer reading." I get the most reading done in winter.

Does anyone have time to read eight books at once in the summer? And even if they did enjoy a lazy summer, would they have the focus to read? Nothing heavy anyway.

Perhaps in "summer reading" there is an implied ease-of-reading, a promise that nothing on the list (whether it is assigned or self-assigned) will be too intense. But it can't really be a long list either. Because the plane rides and the brief beach pauses are the only times to read. The rest of the summer is constant movement, or purposeful stillness; a stillness that even page-scanning eyes would interrupt.

I know people expect themselves to read in the summer. We all make lists. I have one too. I'm using this summer to fill in the holes for my GRE Literature in English subject test. I need to brush up on my multicultural writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and my American poets like William Carlos Williams. I think those are realistic goals. Fiery Colombian storytellers and moody poets sound like fun. I don't plan on reading anything philosophical or analytical or long. War and Peace can sit on the shelf for another nine months.

We make these lists but we all know that this kind of stuff, the inward heady stuff, takes care of itself in winter. In winter you don't even need a list. There's always time to read and the reading gets done.

For student, the cold months are also heavy with assigned reading. For school I've read over seven hundred pages of Marx this semester, and well over a thousand of political philosophy altogether. Also, scores of critical essays and they texts those essays were concerned with, including Milton's lengthy and soporific Paradise Lost, and a whole book on how to be a formalist. Throw in a few short novels and a thick book of metaphysical poetry, and that only brings me to midterm. Jesus Christ, I totally forgot about German Romanticism, Hegel, and Nietzsche on aesthetics.

Do I intend to read like this in the summer? I have to say, no effen way. Not even if it was assigned.

So I think the term "summer reading" was coined with the best of intentions. Teachers wanted to make use of those three months away, to get the students ready for next year. No one ever finished the list, except maybe in third grade when the selections included Bunnicula and The Secret Garden. And then when those third graders are sixty-five and on the beach with no intention of swimming, they might start catching up with the list again.

I think adults who tack books on their list all year must do so with a sense of irony. Summer reading is an awfully romatic notion for us. We think we can balance our summer sensuality with some culture. But it doesn't really work that way. So often, "I'll put it on my summer reading list..." is followed with a chuckle.

The solution to this problem of book list neglect is to face facts and title the list "winter reading." If there is something that truly needs to be read, a classic that you know you should have under your belt, or a difficult book you have never made it through, this is a wintertime project. The thousand page novels, the epic poems, the late Shakespeare, Proust, anything by a philosopher -- read it now while it's cold out, or save it for next year.

Anything marked for summer should be light and easy, maybe with the exception of some heavy poetry for late nights. Straightforward novels of the twentieth century, spiritual and lyrical stuff, a book of short stories, the occasional Victorian treat. This is the stuff of summer reading. If you select something from each of the categories I mentioned, take care not to expect yourself to finish.

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