There's a common idea about summer reading: It's the “beach reads” idea that from Memorial Day to Labor Day every year, readers like to sit back, sigh contentedly, and luxuriate in lighter fare, in books about good-looking divorcées finding true love, or wise-cracking Special Ops teams foiling plots to blow up the Trans-Siberian Railway.
But there's also a dedicated cadre of readers for whom summer vacation means a chance to take a really deep dive into a lengthy read.
Those readers will be gratified to know that June also offers some very appealing longer books.
Take, for instance, The Qur'an and the Bible by Gabriel Said Reynolds, new from Yale University Press at a whopping 1,000 pages. Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame and one of the world's foremost Qur'anic scholars, here provides an extensive analysis of the Qu'ran's textual relationship with the Bible (translations are by Ali Quli Qarai). Providing readers with a full translation of the Qur'an and addressing the strong historical arguments that neither Jewish nor Christian texts were available in Arabic when the Qur'an was written, Reynolds traces the intricate connections between the Abrahamic religions.
The book is that rare combination of first-rate scholarship and immense readability. Readers will be fascinated by Reynolds's investigation of the echoes and parallels of familiar Judeo-Christian characters in the unfamiliar setting of the Qur'an's literary world; it's been half a century since Geoffrey Parrinder's "Jesus in the Qur'an," and as "The Qur'an and the Bible" stresses, “we should thus learn to appreciate the Qur'an not only as the scripture of Islam but also as a central work in the history of Biblical literature.”
Reynolds's book breaks a good deal of new ground, and this is even more true of another atypical summer read this season: The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, a hefty, beautiful new 900-page volume from Liveright. This book, collecting the short stories of the great Brazilian writer Joachim Maria Machado de Assis (some appearing in English here for the first time) in a fluid, joyful new translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, will serve for many English-language readers as the definitive introduction to this author.
Machado, the mulatto grandson of freed slaves, was born in 1939 in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the Brazilian Empire. For most of his adult life he moved from one government post to another, but as our translators emphasize in their brief introduction, the true core of his life was writing: plays, poetry, novels – and a lifetime of short stories that ripple and glitter with an obvious storytelling joy that comes across marvelously well in this new translation, particularly in the smooth rendering of the author's puckish narration. Time and again, he'll give readers the very earnest outward trappings of some tale of Rio's inhabitants and then dash some cold water on their expectations and our own. This commences even in the collection's first story, “Miss Dollar,” in which a hopeful suitor, hearing that his love spends all her time reading, dreams that perhaps she's an intellectual, a poet – only to have Machado's voice break in: “This was a completely baseless supposition and the child of a mind blinded by love. There are various reasons for reading a great deal without one necessarily having any truck with the muses.” The stories unfold in a dozen different registers and tones, but in all cases, as Patterson and Costa put it, “we immediately become the eager listeners.”
And lastly, when considering unconventional summer reading, perhaps the most terrifying example that comes to mind is "À la recherche du temps perdu," Marcel Proust's seven-volume 3,000-page novel-sequence that has represented the Mt. Everest of the reading world for a century. Tackling "In Search of Lost Time" might be a bit much for a single summer, but fortunately, a gorgeous new book from Knopf provides the next best thing: Proust's Duchess, by Caroline Weber, gives English-language readers their first-ever in-depth biographical study of the three women whose lives formed Proust's creative inspiration for the character of the Duchesse of Guermantes. Weber, who made such beguiling reading out of wardrobe in "Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution," here retells the fascinating, though often heartbreaking, lives of Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus, Laure de Sade, Comtesse Adhéaume de Chevigné, and Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, Comtesse Greffulhe. Dozens of characters from fin-de-siècle Paris come alive again in these pages – this is history served as haute cuisine.