A few years ago, I suggested that, instead of some mindless mass-market best-seller for your summer reading, to try reading something totally different — something that you would normally never, ever pick up. Herewith, some suggestions for summer beach and/or veranda reading.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene — Fiction (1955)
There’s been a couple of movie versions of this novel made, but they don’t really capture the subtext, or for that matter, the text: pre-Dien Bien Phu’s fall in Vietnam, where General Giap claimed he was ready to lose 10 Vietnamese soldiers for every Frenchman — and made good on his promise by losing a dozen — and still winning the war. A prescient cautionary tale about what happens when one imperial power (France) doesn’t pay attention to its colonies — and what happens when another power (the United States) steps into the vacuum, without due diligence. Like most Greene novels, this one was based on his actual time spent in Southeast Asia, and really reads. A prestige novel from one of the great Catholic novelists of the 20th century.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger — Short Fiction (1955)
Salinger gets most of his notoriety for his classic The Catcher In The Rye novel — and living like a hermit for most of the rest of his life in New England — but of the very few books this recluse ever published, I prefer Franny and Zooey. Based on Salinger’s imaginary New York City Glass family, the book contains one of my favorite lines: “I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.”
The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter — Drama (1960)
By the time he died in 2008, Harold Pinter was acknowledged as, more or less, the greatest English playwright. The Dumb Waiter, which is only 50 pages long, is Pinter’s homage to his spiritual father, Samuel Beckett, who ushered in the “Theatre of the Absurd.” Two characters, Ben and Gus, are squatters in the basement a supposedly abandoned building — however the dumb waiter not only works but comes up and down with a bizarre assortment of items and requests. By turns funny, pathetic, and just plain weird, unless you’re a huge fan of absurdist theater, you’ve probably never read anything like it.
The Quest For Corvo by A.J.A. Symons — Biography (1934)
A.J.A. Symons read Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo’s novel Hadrian The Seventh, in which an Englishman is elected pope, and became obsessed with the (dead) author. The Quest for Corvo was the result of his nonstop searching for all of Baron Corvo’s writings, many of which were in safes, lock-boxes, and publishers’ cupboards. By far the least linear biography ever written, Symons tracks Corvo’s steps from his conversion to Catholicism, his two failed attempts to become a priest (one at Rome, another in Scotland), his career as a painter, his failed career as a pioneer of color photography and underwater photography, to his failed career as a writer of not only Hadrian the Seventh, but The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, Chronicles of the House of Borgia, Hubert’s Arthur, The Weird of the Wanderer, Stories Toto Told Me, In His Own Image, and Don Renato — all of which netted “Baron” Corvo (there’s no reason or proof that he was a member of the aristocracy) next to nothing. Indeed, he died penniless and homeless in Venice.
The Camera Does The Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography by Peter Buse — Business (2016)
Full disclosure: my second cousin was the CEO of Polaroid from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. This book-length treatment tackles the history of what was once an American icon. (Who hasn’t seen photos of pop artist Andy Warhol and his ever-present Polaroid?) Buse chronicles Polaroid’s demise in the digital revolution and its reincarnation as a sort of hipster gimmick. However, we tend to forget that, at its core, Polaroid was both an American-original company, both innovative and inventive for decades. Buse recounts this history with an unflagging, entertaining prose style.
Fear And Trembling (1850) by Soren Kierkegaard — Philosophy (1850)
I don’t read philosophy for fun, either, really, but that doesn’t mean one can’t dip into the Father of Existentialism for something totally different. The part to remember about Kierkegaard was that he was, at heart, a believing and practicing Christian, and that “existentialism” (which became something Kierkegaard would not have recognized) of the Albert Camus/Jean-Paul Sartre variety wasn’t something he would have even countenanced. Fear And Trembling — the title comes right out of the Bible — starts off by dealing with a meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac. And Kierkegaard was under no illusions, as he himself wrote of Fear and Trembling: “The present author is in a poetical and refined way a supplementary clerk who neither writes the system nor gives the promises of the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system nor binds himself to the system. He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes.” Amen to all that.
Civilisation by Kenneth Clark — History (1970)
The companion book to the acclaimed 1969 PBS/BBC series, Clark’s book is a tour de force taking on all aspects of Western civilization: art, architecture, history, philosophy, poetry, politics, music, engineering, religion, opera, ballet, slavery, health care, education, and pretty much anything else that came to Clark’s polymath mind.
The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke — Poetry (1899, 1922)
I’m not a huge fan of Rilke’s poetry in general, but this book is so different from anything else he ever wrote, I think it deserves further investigation. The book, which is en face with the original German on the left-hand pages, is one of the most unusual poems published in the 20th century, and unlike anything else Rilke ever wrote.
The Doctors of the Church by Bernard McGinn — Religion (1999)
Perhaps the best one-volume non-academic introduction to the men and women who have been named “Doctors” (that is, “Teachers”) of the Catholic Faith. McGinn does an excellent job of marshalling a lot of hagiography and historiography into just 200 pages.
Happy Summer Reading!