Sometime back in the 1970s, I made a few attempts at reading "The Lord of the Rings." Acting on the repeated recommendations of a friend at school, I bought the three-volume paperback set and started the series on three or four occasions, but after a few chapters I would invariably be stalled by the absurdity of this so-called classic being based on the lives of elves, dwarves, wizards and "hobbits" - whatever hobbits were. Then, the during that year's summer break, I decided to make one more attempt, force myself to read the first fifteen chapters, and see if I could discover what all the fuss was about. I ended up reading all three volumes in a single week, have read the full series again two or three times since, and am reminded of the story every time I hear a particular Top 40 song that was constantly playing in the background during that summer.
Now, I'm mildly surprised that I have such a clear memory of my first encounter with a book (not even my favorite) - a memory which is in some ways as vivid as if it had been the more traditional first time you lock eyeballs with your one true love, or stare down fear in the crush of a post-Christmas clearance sale. But apparently, it's not uncommon for summer reads to make lasting impressions, especially when combined with an exotic vacation locale. (You may have had this experience yourself.) Ample evidence of the phenomenon is available at Coudal Partners' Field-Tested Books , and if you're looking for a summer reading list with a bit of a twist, this website has just the thing.
If you spend a significant amount of time surfing the Web, you may already be familiar with Coudal Partners. This Chicago-based design, advertising and interactive studio that has so many extra-curricular creations, activities and general-interest links on their website that they actually have a dedicated page reminding visitors about their real jobs. (Extras include the previously-reviewed Museum of Online Museums, the constantly updated collection of internet gems and curiosities found in Fresh Signals, and the 'so beautiful you only wish the contents were worthy' CD and DVD containers known as Jewel Boxes.) Field-Tested Books is only one among many such projects, but one so popular (now in its third year) that hundreds of visitors have paid to download a six dollar PDF version of a project that's available absolutely free of charge online.
So what sets the Field-Tested collection apart? Well, rather than compile the traditional collection of capsule reviews of current releases (a worthwhile undertaking in its own right), the folks at Coudal Partners sent out a request for memories of first encounters with specific books while away from home. To quote the site, "The Field-Tested Books project is our version of the Heisenberg principle: reading a certain book in a certain place uniquely affects a person's experience with both." From exotic locations on the other side of the world to the local park, from 30,000 feet above sea level to where the rubber meets the road, the collection is more about 'reliving' a book than reviewing it. And while there are certainly some obvious connections between topic and venue (such as reading "Alaska Bear Tales" while working in the interior of the 49th state), other examples find the geography irrelevant but the situation making the impact (as when traveling though time and space on an airliner and exploring "Einstein's Dreams" about time and space).
In terms of presentation, Field-Tested is basic, logical, and possessing a single, simple but indispensable enhancement from the 'bells and whistles' category. After the introduction, the presentation opens to the first of the essays, with close to 50 additional alphabetical-by-contributor choices down the right side of the page. (In accordance with the site's approach, the titles of the 'featured' books aren't even included in the index - merely the contributor's name and the whereabouts of the encounter.) As each installment is read, a checkmark appears in the index beside that entry, so as long as you don't clear your browser's History, you won't have to worry about losing track of which pieces you have and haven't seen.
Content is in the form of articles that run between 100 and 900 words, were born in locations from Walla Walla, Washington to Capetown, South Africa, and highlight the work of writers from Robert B. Parker to Franz Kafka. Some pieces provide fairly detailed reviews, some merely include the book as part of the scenery, but one way or another, all of them have a story to tell. One writer connects with nature while backpacking through Bolivia and reading Jung's "Man and His Symbols" ("Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature, and has lost his emotional 'unconscious identity' with natural phenomena"). Another discovers "Billy Budd" during a summer spent in a nearly deserted college dorm. Still other accounts recall the innocence of "The Babysitter's Club" and a local library, and the much more serious pairing of "The Exorcist" and an impending divorce.
It's certainly an unusual approach to literary review, but judging by the facts that the exercise is into its third incarnation, and that people are willing to pay for the privilege of printing their own copies of complete strangers' memories about books the surfer has probably never read, there certainly appears to be a market for people reading stories about other people reading stories. If the concept of melding review with reminiscence appeals, Field-Tested Books has just what you need. If not, the site could still serve to suggest options for the second half of the summer that don't come from the current bestseller lists.
Field-Tested Books can be found at http://www.coudal.com/ftb/.
(My all-time favorite book? Donald Jack's "Three Cheers For Me," though I have absolutely no recollection of the first time - of many times - that I read it. It must not have been during a summer vacation.)