Pleasure Reading: a Critic's Summer Vocation
WHAT, if anything, do book reviewers read on their summer vacations? There are two ways of responding to this burning question. One is to compose a list of suitable books a reviewer might read and recommend to others on their summer vacations. The other is to confess the truth - at least about this reviewer.Skip to next paragraph
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No, it's not that I head for the beach with a shopping bag full of Gothic romances, or that I forget books altogether as I plump down on the sofa for a nonstop orgy of television. The truth is, I don't take a summer vacation. And when I do read just for my own pleasure, it isn't all that different from what I read for the purpose of reviewing. Still, there are some differences. Certainly there is a lot of fiction published these days that I wouldn't read unless I were reviewing it. Nor, left to my own devices, am I likely to read books about computers, the future of technology, or the dismal science of economics.
Summertime, vacation time, any free time can be a time to indulge yourself by returning to what you know you like: a time to read the Jane Austen novel you've been saving up for later (she wrote so few, one is loath to gobble them up at once, and the various bits of juvenalia and such that come out now and then are just not as satisfying as her six major novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey). If you've acquired a taste for Trollope, however, there's an almost inexhaustible supply: the Barsetshire novels, the Palliser novels, over a dozen ungrouped novels, plus an autobiography and travel books. Better yet, there's Balzac's ``com'edie humaine,'' some 91 interlinked, but separate novels and stories depicting every aspect of French society in the late 18th century and first half of the 19th.
Seeking for more of what you like can lead in new directions, and summer can be a time to expand your perceptions by venturing where you've never gone before. When I was 12, I searched in vain for more novels by my favorite writer, Emily Bront"e, and thus was led to Charlotte Bront"e and books about the Bront"es. Burrowing into the ``B'' section of the library, I ran into Byron, Blake, and Browning. The loveliest thing about leisure is the freedom to follow up new leads, letting a mention of Plato and Dante in a poem send you back to ``The Republic'' or ``The Inferno'' - perhaps even the whole ``Divine Comedy.''
Shortly after my ``B'' period, I ``discovered'' Shelley and Keats. I'd heard the names Shelley, Keats, and Yeats, and was determined to figure out which was which - and whether they were called ``Keets'' and ``Yates'' or ``Kates'' and ``Yeets.'' I was not to discover Yeats till later, but spent a summer quite immersed in Shelley and Keats. Poetry makes good summer reading. It is relatively concentrated, yet imaginatively expansive, and, for practical reasons, safer to read when sitting in the sun than that great perennial vacation project ``War and Peace'' (more suited to long winter nights).
Whenever I've had spare time recently, I've found myself poring over two new poetry collections.
John Hollander's Harp Lake (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 94 pp., $16.95) is recreational in the best sense. There are poems that comment on pictures and a ``shaped'' poem that looks like a cat. In his longish poem ``Kinneret'' (the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee, meaning harp lake), Hollander makes brilliant use of the Malay pantun form, which he deftly describes: