This vacation I intended to read only “light” stuff, because everybody says that’s what they do. So I chose a few short contemporary novels (I would read one a day, I decided), the Science Fiction issue of The New Yorker, and something slightly more demanding but very short, Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev.
Ever interested in pop culture, I primed myself for vacation with a few essays on summer reading. I discovered that it has long been a tradition to take a classic on vacation, and it has long been a tradition to mock the tradition gently. A 1965 essay in Time Magazine, “Summer Reading: Risks, Rules & Rewards,” begins with a quote from Goodbye, Columbus:
“DORIS?” says a character in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. “She’s the one who’s always reading War and Peace. That’s how I know it’s summer, when Doris is reading War and Peace.” Whether or not Doris ever suffers through all 365 chapters of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, she is plainly a member in good standing of the summer self-improvement league, that earnest, ever growing army of readers who would sooner put a cherry in a martini than leave for vacation without at least one Great Book.”
Taking War and Peace on vacation may seem even more risible today. But why? War and Peace is an easy read. It’s because “Civilization” and the “Book” are coming to an end, and Alec Baldwin is on Twitter….and Tarzan is in the can0n…You know. But, really, can you imagine an essay on summer reading today beginning with a quote from a book by Philip Roth?
I was fascinated by Jennifer Weiner’s proclamation in an article in The Washington Post Book World that somehow people who aren’t reading entertaining light books on vacation are snobs.
Beach reads, airplane books, page-turners . . . call them what you will, but know that, at this very moment, some tattooed hipster is curling his or her pierced lip at any book that arrives with a whiff of suntan lotion and looks like fun. The implicit critique is that there’s something disreputable about a book that doesn’t send you running for the dictionary or offer sweeping pronouncements about The Way We Live Now; a book that promises enjoyable reading, engaging characters, a brisk plot — “mere entertainment.”
Not that I’m a tattooed hipster with a pierced lip, but I genuinely enjoy classics. So Jennifer and I will have to disagree on this one: vacations give us time to read great books.
Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World, hinted that it might be a bit geeky to choose classics on vacations. When he was a teacher, he didn’t like to assign summer reading. He adds:
Many of us are still silently carrying out that argument when we pack our suitcases — or load our e-readers: Should I spend a week at Virginia Beach with Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” or E L James’s “Fifty Shades of Gray.”
(Take it from me, he isn’t going to like “Fifty,” because he likes good books. For a trash fix, I recommend Valley of the Dolls, which I loved. It’s a good-bad book, if you know what I mean.)
Janet Maslin in The New York Times says briskly,
Summer reading used to be so easy. No vampires. No handcuffs. Just cookie-cutter choices from genres so broad they could be spotted from space, and the occasional standout hit…”
A little mordant? Then she enthusiastically says Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies is the best book of the season, and goes on to recommend some lighter “beach” books. She doesn’t mention the classics.
On my vacation, I didn’t get through all my books, light, heavy, or whatever. I finished only one contemporary light novel, Suzanne Joiner’s The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, which I liked very much. (I wrote about it here.)
I must have unconsciously on purpose lost the SF issue of The New Yorker, because then I was then able to sigh with relief and begin an interesting science fiction novel by Pamela Sargent, Venus of Dreams (which is real SF, not SF by literary hacks! I’m still reading this one, and the Jury is out.) It’s almost as long as War and Peace.
inspired by Dessiax’s book about Turgenev (which I finished), I also read two very short, very entertaining novels by Turgenev, On the Eve and Smoke, downloaded free at Project Gutenberg.
The “Light Book” police aren’t going to like this next one. I read and loved the elegant novel, The Post-Office Girl, a dark Cinderella story by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer who wrote several stunning novellas and novels and fled the Nazis, only to commit suicide in Brazil with his wife in 1942.
Set after World War I in Austria, The Post-Office Girl is the story of Christine, who runs a post office in a tiny village to support herself and her mother, who is old and sick. They are almost starving: they live in a ghastly, musty attic, are always anxious, and everything is “too expensive.”
Then Christine gets a chance: her rich aunt, who lives in America, sends a telegram. She invites Christine to join her and her husband in a hotel in Switzerland. Her aunt takes her shopping for beautiful clothes and to a hairdresser, her uncle enjoys her vivacity and beauty, and for the first time in her life Christine has fun. She is beautiful, like her aunt, but no one ever noticed her before. And everyone from a famous general to a German engineer wants to go out with her. She wants only to live in the present. But then something happens…and she is back where she started from.
Everything is hopeless, until she meets a man in Vienna, a war veteran who has not been able to make a living since returning from Russia. He has no money to continue his education. They make a plan…
I swear The Post-Office Girl is a pageturner.