"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Slender Read

I have known since I was about ten years old that the highest end of man, the activity in which pleasure and nature and reason and worship of the Creator all combine in one perfect blossom of celebration and wonder at the sheer goodness of life is: to sit in a wicker chair on the porch, in the wavering humidity of a summer day, and read, and read, and read, knowing you can sit there as long as you please because there is nothing you need to do and nowhere you have to go and nothing better than finishing this book and starting on another.

The only thing that has changed since 1968 is my preferred refreshment. Back then it was black cherry Kool-Aid, now I tend more toward white sangria or Harp Lager. Oh, maybe the books have bigger words in them, and most of the authors weren't even born in 1968. But for endless porch summers I still choose the same kind of book I chose then: one that engages your brain more than your heart. Tear-jerkers are for the chair pulled up to the fireplace in the gloomy dusk of a December afternoon. Summer belongs to British timetable mysteries, playful fantasy, and marveling at clever wordplay.

I daresay anyone who's weathered public school, even the safer sorts you find in the rural townships of the Midwest, will understand how I found out so young that you couldn't really read until school was out. The kind of reading you do in school seems designed to cure you of longing for books. I was even disciplined once for taking a library book home. They had unaccountably allowed me to check out a story that was too interesting to stop reading when the school bus arrived. Unthinkable.

So here's what I've been reading on the porch.

Jonathan Lethem

I discovered Jonathan Lethem about six months ago, when my husband returned from a business trip with an airport bookshop copy of Motherless Brooklyn in his suitcase. Motherless Brookyln is itself a summer porch book, a murder mystery told in first person by a Tourettic orphan whose verbal and mental tics expand the English language like a helium balloon. In the pre-Thanksgiving gloom it might have made a less lasting impression on me had I not read it a couple of weeks before making my first visit to Brooklyn. In the company of my friend and life-long Brooklynite Brenda, I succumbed to the borough as one would to some only slightly painful, yet exotic, disease, and Lethem's place in my brain was cemented.

Now I know that the New York Times and the MacArthur Foundation discovered Lethem years ago, and I am very late to the Certified Genius bandwagon. I did not realize until Men and Cartoons that Lethem had, before becoming the poet of dysfunctional Brooklyn, written multiple volumes of weirdo West Coast cross-genre experimentalist fiction, most of which would probably sail right over my head. Never mind. The Fortress of Solitude is a perfect summer book: an evocation of three decades in which a white kid grows up in, leaves, and returns to the neighborhood that eventually becomes gentrified Boerum Hill but continues to haunt him as the rough and dangerous Gowanus of his boyhood. Its residual weirdness, including an unlikely superhero subplot, stands as a barrier to too-close personal engagement with the main characters, which qualifies it as a porch book. This is more than compensated for by Lethem's uncanny and unique use of language, memory hooks, and visual imagery.

Jasper Fforde

What is it about the simultaneous appearance of fictional ideas? I can't tell you how many times I've picked up books from different authors, apparently unknown to each other, that introduce the same bizarre plot device. In the space of a week my sister sent me the first Fforde novel in the Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair, and my youngest daughter acquired a copy of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. Both novels, one written in English for adults and the other in German for children, describe a world where people can enter and leave books. I don't know if the problem is the writer or the translation into English, but Funke's leaden characters and inability to move a plot, despite an interesting hook, make Jasper Fforde look like Leo bleedin' Tolstoy. Considered without comparison to second-rate kid lit, Thursday Next is certainly no Anna Karenina, but she inhabits a world full of imaginative and amusing details, from a cloned pet dodo to riotous gangs of John Milton fanciers. So far the best of the series is the third, The Well of Lost Plots. But it won't make a lick of sense if you haven't read the first two, and they're like popsicles anyway, quickly consumed and leaving you hungry for more.

Paul Johnson

Most of Johnson's historical work I would not consider classic porch fare; it requires too much sustained attention. But I make an exception for Art: A New History. Mainly because it has many (although not enough) pretty pictures. But also because Johnson's art criticism is refreshingly straightforward, free of the usual incomprehensible pomo BS, and informed with enough knowledge of the historical and political context in which this art was created to make it real, if unconventional, art history.

Happy reading, all. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of paperbacks.

1 comment:

James Elliott said...

Lethem is awesome. Well chosen.

For students of history, Derek Leebaert's "To Dare & To Conquer" is excellent: erudite while wholly engrossing and readable. It is a study in Western special warfare from ancient Greece to modern day and invaluable for anyone who wants to learn what a small band of determined folks can do.

In the same vein, Dave Edmonds and John Eidinow's "Wittgenstein's Poker" and "Rousseau's Dog" are wonderful works about famous feuds between important philosophers - Wittgenstein vs. Popper and Rousseau vs. Hume.

John Updike's "Terrorist" was a disappointment. Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" is the most terrifying, mind-bending, and terrific read I've had in a long, long time.

Having devoured the collected works of Eric Hoffer, Saul Alinsky, Paulo Friere, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and having terminally hurt my brain with Wittgenstein's "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus," I prepare to bend my mind further with Richard Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" in preparation for Steven Erikson's latest release in August, "House of Chains."

I love summer reading.