Summer Reading

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 think, 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.

[iv]Ibid., 147.

[v]Ibid., 168-69.

[vi]Ibid., 171-72.

[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.

[viii]Kaag, 234.

[ix]William James, “Is Life Worth Living?”, delivered at Holden Chapel, Harvard University, April 15, 1895 (https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt)

I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

Merry it is while summer lasts

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

Mirie it is while somer y-last. “Merry it is while summer lasts.” So goes the 13th-century lyric, one of the earliest known secular English songs (the other being Summer is icumen in). But while such praise of summer lacks the explicit theological or liturgical character of its pious predecessors, is not the idealized notion of a happy summer a plausible echo of the joys of Paradise? History takes a vacation. Ambition is deposed. The temporal flow slows its onward rush, deepening into a placid pool of unhurried being. The poet’s longing for “world enough, and time” is fulfilled at last in a sabbath of playful ease. Children romp in the sea, lovers stroll bright gardens, readers open their books, friends converse at evening. Mirie it is.

It should always be so in August, that we might agree with Emerson: “this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” But of course Thoreau did a better job than his bookish friend at getting outside to see what summer was actually doing day by day. Summer in fact is not a general idea, but an aggregate of particulars.

On this date in 1856, Thoreau wandered the fields and woods of Concord, Massachusetts. His Journal tells us that “Ambrosia pollen now begins to yellow my clothes.” He was surprised to find the cassia “so obvious and abundant.” In an old garden gone wild from British days, he became “intoxicated with the fragrance” of spearmint, hounds-tongue, and bergamot. He named those plants he could, while each new discovery filled him with curiosity and wonder. He bathed in the river, registering how strong the current seemed for mid-August. And he lamented the recent dampness of the weather, causing his pressed plant specimens to mildew. “Give me the dry heat of July,” he wrote.

Reading Thoreau’s Journal entry prompted me to look up August 16 in my own yearly journals. It turns out that I honored the spirit of August by playing more than writing, but I did find one entry for this date in 1989, when I hiked at sunset to the top of Mt. Tallac, a 10,000’ peak above Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra range, to watch the rise of a full moon in total eclipse. I carefully noted the changes as the reddish lunar disc slipped slowly out of the earth’s shadow to flood the mountain with intense milky light. Then I descended through a ghostly forest of moonlit junipers, grateful to have been present to see and to know. If I had not been there, that night would not have become part of me, nor I of it.

So now I must leave my desk to see what this summer day wants to offer the senses. I will linger in the shade of the peach tree with a book, keeping my eye on the finches, chickadees, juncos and hummingbirds who shelter and sing in its branches. I will praise the sunflowers, each a miniature daystar, towering above the flower garden, and hear the soft music of quivering aspens. I will taste blackberries ripening beyond the drying lawn, plus whatever strawberries the squirrels have spared. My skin will feel the reddish warmth of the late sun as it drops between the Douglas-firs. And when night comes, I will stroll among the lilies and dahlias, so white—and fragrant!—beneath the gibbous moon. Mirie it is.

 

Related Posts

Paying Attention

The Summer’s Final Mass

Summer Knowledge

Sacraments of Summer

Charles Courtney Curran, Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris (1889)

Charles Courtney Curran, Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris (1889)

Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered
And spring’s infuriations over and a long way
To the first autumnal inhalations, young broods
Are in the grass, the roses are heavy with a weight
Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble.

– Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer”

In a short while, at 3:34 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the sun will reach its apogee of 23 degrees 27 minutes above the equator. When that moment comes, I will go outside to give Summer a proper welcome.

Every June Solstice I open Summer like a fresh novel, anticipating adventurous plots, alluring characters, and a world of fascinations presenting itself to my senses without hurry, as if both reader and text had all the time in the world. Summer is one of our sweetest fictions, suffused with a youthful happiness in a shadowless earthly paradise.

Of course, the livin’ isn’t always easy. Agonies and heartbreak may yet interrupt our revels, along with the heat waves, mosquitoes, sunburn, and poison oak. Summer is when my father died, and a dear friend committed suicide. Et in arcadia ego. In timeless Arcadia, death is still around

Even so, when summer smiles, I remember happiness once more:

Firefly nights and swimming hole days,
cold lemonade on a screened porch,
bare feet on warm ground, grass between my toes,
air-conditioned movies on a hot afternoon,
stack of summer reading by the hammock,
the holy calm of nothing to do,
cottonwoods whispering leafy poems to a quiet river,
the pleasurable sublime of high country thunderstorms,
campfire sparks rising to meet the Milky Way,
Springsteen singing us down some lost highway,
windows rolled down in the warm night air,
stars falling into a hayfield after midnight,
moonlight croquet (a candle at each wicket),
swapping songs around red Sonoma wine,
dancing till dawn on Gatsby’s lawn,
those kisses beneath the stars . . .

Do such moments only defer the inevitable erosion of temporal existence, or are they sacramental foretastes of eternal blessedness? Either way, as Michael Cunningham makes clear in The Hours, the Perfect Moment, like Summer itself, is not a gift to be wasted:

It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness…What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.

 

Related posts

That Summer Feeling

Now Welcome Summer

 

 

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.