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.

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:

Pantuns in the original Malay/

Are quatrains of two thoughts, but of one mind./

Athwart these two pontoons I sail away,/

Yet touching neither; land lies far behind.

Yet Hollander's wit points to serious concerns: burdens of change and mortality that only the transfiguring ``lightness'' of art makes bearable:

We played unknowing for the highest stakes/

All day, then lost when night was ``drawing nigh.''/

The dark pale of surrounding hemlocks makes/

Stabs of transcendence in the evening sky.

Shadows of mutability fall across Adrienne Rich's latest collection, appositely called Time's Power (Norton, New York, 58 pp., $15.95). In these poems from 1985-1988, Rich's feminist-political concerns are still evident, but the strongest presence is time, the power all poets contend against. In language that is understated, but never flat, beautifully adequate to what it speaks of, Rich takes us from the desert garden of Baja, Calif., to Vermont's wet woodlands, from contemplation of a scratched, wooden typing stand to meditations on ``Sleepwalking Next to Death.'' The most ordinary words and images take on accents that reverberate beyond the mere occasion they describe:

I want five hours with you/

in a train running south/

maybe ten hours/

in a Greyhound bound for the border/

the two seats side-by-side that become a home/

an island of light in the continental dark/

the time that takes the place of a lifetime...

``Home is where the books are.'' This quote comes from Richard Burton, who as we learn from Melvyn Bragg's Richard Burton: A Life (Little, Brown, Boston, 533 pp., illustrated, $22.95) was a voracious reader as well as one of the most talented actors of his time. Drawing freely on the notebooks Burton kept, this irresistible summer reading temptation reveals the over-exposed celebrity as a man of keen intellect, with a deep love for literature and considerable writing ability of his own. There's lots about ``Liz,'' of course, but also other, less expected treats, such as Burton's penetrating critique of that overbearing critic, Edmund Wilson.

For those of us who stay at home, it's possible to ``vacation'' by trying new foods. Anyone planning to sample new dishes at home or abroad - not to mention those who are ambitious enough to expand their culinary skills in their own kitchens - will not likely find a better, more comprehensive guide than Larousse Gastronomique. The new American edition, edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang (Crown, New York, 1,193 pp., $50) features excellent illustrations, concise, easy-to-follow recipes, and alphabetically arranged information on everything from specific ingredients like garlic and fennel to entire cuisines like French, Indian, and Southeast Asian.

For people who like to travel - and those who like to travel vicariously - Daily Life in the Forbidden City, by Wan Yi, Wang Shuquing, and Lu Yanzhen (Viking, New York, 327 pp., $75) may serve as preparation or substitute for a trip to Beijing's famed museum of palaces. Carefully prepared and gorgeously illustrated, this hefty book is a little museum in itself, focusing on imperial life in the Qing dynasty 1644-1912: ceremonies, rites, cultural activities, and the ordinary ``daily life'' of emperors, empresses, concubines, servants, and eunuchs.

As someone who hated to put down my book when my mother urged me to play outdoors, I still find reading a vacation as well as a vocation.

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