The New Novel (Winslow Homer, 1877)
Summer reading has a leisurely reputation, way up there with other genteel activities such as croquet and badminton and wildflower gathering. The act of reading has historically been considered a privilege, and summer reading is privilege taken to an extreme. Just the image of a reader in summer brings to mind something sensual and luxurious. We picture the reader outdoors only, arranged in some bucolic setting: forest or beach or yard.
–– Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List”
When Meg Wolitzer was twelve, she belonged to the local library’s Summer Reading Club, whose members agreed to read at least ten books during the long break from school. “Ten,” she exclaims. “We say the number with true disdain. Ten is nothing; ten is what we have ripped through before the first week in July. . .”
At summer’s end, the club newsletter published the names of the youthful readers along with the titles of all the books each has read. The library threw a party to celebrate their accomplishment, and hired a magician for entertainment. But the kids paid little heed to the performer on stage, for they were still “lost in plots, characters, populated worlds that we’ve plowed through during the hottest days of summer. We all know that there is something magical about the sudden voracity that’s been implanted in us.”
As an adult, Wolitzer still begins her summers with a visit to the library, randomly browsing the stacks until a book’s title or author calls to her. “If it does, then I pick up the book and look at the opening pages. . . I stand and read a little way in, trying to imagine myself surrounded by greenery, keeping company with this book for hours at a time. Is this prose I want to lie down with? I ask. Is this a voice I want to hear murmuring in my ear throughout the longest days of summer?” [i]
I’ve always identified with Wolitzer’s lovely essay, for the selection of summer reading is as critical to the season as compiling our travel itinerary or mapping my annual backcountry pilgrimage. What voices do I want to keep me company in the hammock, on the beach, or by the wilderness lake?
In these brilliant, languorous days of late July in Puget Sound, I am anxious to rise from the desk where I write this in order to rejoin my books out in the garden. But first let me share something of what I have found in two of this year’s summer reads.
Kathleen Hill’s thoughtful memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons, devotes each chapter to a single book, exploring who and where she was when she read it, and the ways in which that book has both illuminated and altered her own story. In her reflection on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, she pens a reader’s credo:
“Not so long ago I’d been afraid of living wholly inside of books. Fear of the unlived life had propelled me out of them. Reading, I thought, was a substitute for living, a sphere apart in which the reader underwent the characters’ lives rather than her own. . . And yet here I was, sitting on the verandah with [Portrait of a Lady]. . . pondering Isabel’s life as a way of pondering my own. What could this mean? It was as if I needed a novel, after all, to decipher events. Life was too fluid to reflect on, too transient. One state of feelings replaces another too quickly. . . But in the pages of a novel, time is slowed down so that you can feel within yourself what is transpiring. You can stop, you can ponder. And then see. In reading, you can find yourself where you are. Had I been mistaken, then, to think that reading must lead me away from life rather than toward it?” [ii]
A very different memoir, John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, explores the dilemmas of his personal narrative through the lens of great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a perfect book to read last week beside Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, a wide stretch of the Mississippi River where my grandfather Charles Friedrich built a summer home still occupied by his descendants from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“What the river says, that is what I say,” wrote William Stafford. And oh, with what pleasure did I sit on the sandy beach of “Friedrich Point,” regarding the immense flow of water through the heartland while mind and heart absorbed the deep currents of wisdom running through Kaag’s pages:
“The I think, I am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or of the totality.” (Friedrich Schelling) [i]
“Love, recognizing germs of loveliness [even] in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.” (Charles Sanders Peirce) [ii]
“Life consists everywhere in a repetition of the fundamental paradox of consciousness. In order to realize what I am, I must, as I find, become more than I am or than I know myself to be. I must enlarge myself, conceive myself as in external relationships, go beyond my private self, presuppose the social life, enter into [the inevitable] conflict, and, winning the conflict, come nearer to realizing my unity with my deeper self.” (Josiah Royce) [iii]
“Have you then a discontent with your thought-horizon? If it is not a mere discontent but at the same time an earnest aspiration, there are goods in store for you whether you seek them among the mountains of philosophy or elsewhere. I wish I might lead you to some peak of vision, but it is seldom that I feel myself more than a wanderer––a climber.” (William Ernest Hocking in a letter to Agnes O’Reilly, his future wife) [iv]
The heart of Kaag’s book is his deeply personal search for healing and meaning. In the middle of his own Dantean dark wood––“so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives shape to fear”––he chanced upon a dilapidated stone library in a New Hampshire forest.[vii]
The library is part of “West Wind,” the old 400-acre estate of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), a Harvard philosopher who grounded transcendental idealism in the empirical method of American pragmatism. “That which does not work is not true,” he declared. Over the years, he had amassed an extensive collection of precious philosophical works, which had never been donated or dispersed. In the quiet backcountry of New England, Hocking’s books remained exactly as he had left them fifty years ago.
Hocking’s descendants were not around, but the library, seeming dilapidated and forgotten, was unlocked. Upon entering, Kaag discovered an astonishing number of first editions from Descartes and Kant to William James and Josiah Royce, along with handwritten notes and inscriptions by Emerson, Whitman and Frost. It seemed philosophy’s equivalent of the Grail Chapel in Arthurian legend, a phantasmagoric no-place where all questions end and all desires are known. Or perhaps it bore greater resemblance to the long-deserted dining room in Great Expectations. Like Miss Haversham’s forlorn wedding cake, its rare and valuable volumes were being eaten away by mice, insects, moisture and time.
With the blessing of Hocking’s descendants, Kaag began to catalog and preserve what he could, a long process in which his own wounded story was critically examined and ultimately healed.
“West Wind taught me many things,” he wrote. “About longevity in the face of destruction, about dealing with loss, about love and freedom, but also about the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy, and the humanities more generally, once served as an effective cult of the dead––documenting, explaining, and revitalizing the meaning and value of human pursuits. It tried to figure out what is most worthy about us. At its best, philosophy tried to explain why our lives, so fragile and ephemeral, might have lasting significance.” [viii]
Kaag grounded his quest in the fundamental question posed by William James in an 1895 lecture to a student assembly in Harvard’s Holden chapel. His question was, “Is Life Worth Living?” And how did James answer? Maybe. It all depends on the choices and commitments of those who live it. The universe is still wild, untamed, and “half-saved,” he said. And maybe our own commitment to the divine work of redeeming it is a prerequisite, or at least a catalyst, for transformation:
“And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. . . It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. . . [God’s own self], in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this.” [ix]
Dogmatists may debate whether this grants too much capacity to mortals, undermining our sense of dependence upon grace. I prefer to understand the “maybe,” and our willingness to stake our lives on it, as grace’s natural habitat, and Love’s most perfect work.
Well the day is half gone. So is the summer. What shall I read now? Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, an “elegiac” novel my sister just sent me in the mail? Or how about Amelia Gray’s “stunning” and “heavenly” new novel about Isadora Duncan? What else is lying around, crying for my attention? Bijan Omrani’s Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys Through Roman Gaul? Andre Malraux’s art history classic, The Voices of Silence? Edward Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse? Devin McKinney’s “great metaphysical soup” and “white-hot prose” in The Beatles in Dream and History? David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry? Or has the moment come at last to pick up what R. Crumb calls “a crazy idea for a book”: How to Read Nancy, a lavishly learned critique of Ernie Bushmiller’s “perfect comic strip” by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden?
What the hammock says, that is what I say.
[i]Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List,” in Summer, ed. Alice Gordon & Vincent Virga (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990), 59-63.
[ii]Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 116.
[iii]John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), 167.
[vii] The quote is from Dante’s Inferno I:4-6 (John Ciardi translation). Kaag structures his book into three sections reflecting the triadic progress of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Redemption.
[ix]William James, “Is Life Worth Living?”, delivered at Holden Chapel, Harvard University, April 15, 1895 (https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt)