Summer’s comin’ — so what shall I read?
The hot, humid weather in North Texas this week has me thinking about summer. And summer has me thinking about books.
In fact, I am just going to go ahead and declare it summer today, so that I can read more books — especially novels.
Yes, it’s true I have had plenty of time on my hands during the fall and winter, and now in the spring, to read. But for some reason, I need summer — or to convince myself that summer has arrived — to do a lot of reading for pleasure. I blame last summer, when I purposely spent many days and nights in heretofore unprecedented book bliss.
I was reminded again of those happy, solitary hours when watching a PBS bio on Huey P. Long on Netflix this morning. It included clips from Robert Penn Warren, who wrote what I considered my most thrilling read of last summer (see below).
So, in the spirit of Huey P. Long I hereby officially declare today as Summertime, and, no matter what anyone else says, that means I can begin preparing for my Great Summer Book Tour II. So far, there is one book on my list for sure — Malcolm X — A Life of Reinvention, by Marable. Oh, and I want to read something from Faulkner.
What do you think I should read this year?
Here’s a look back at how I graded the books — as well as the reader — after last summer’s biblio-frenzy.
Sept. 21, 2011
OK, I am little late. But I have finally completed my summer reading project, having added considerably to the traditional “summer months” in order to finish my final book of the season, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.
Here’s the background: I graduated with my Master’s from Brite Divinity School in May, making me free for the first time in three and a half years to read books that I was not assigned to read by someone else. At the same time, I faced the fact that I am not well read, and I wanted to try to change that.
Most of my reading in the past that was not theological has been history or biographies (thus, my wife: “When are you going to read something fun?). On top of all that, after I walked in May, I suddenly found myself with plenty of extra time on my hands.
So, I went into the summer wanting to read novels — classic novels — from the most acclaimed writers. And I tried to rule out any selections that were (overtly) theological, because, whew, I needed a break from theological.
So, drum roll please, here — in no particular order — is my completed summer reading list, which started with Memorial Day weekend and finished yesterday when I turned the final page of All the King’s Men:
— All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
— Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball
—To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
—To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
—The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
—The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
—All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
—A Death in the Family by James Agee
It is a wonder, isn’t it, that I had never read any of these before? (Saw the movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”) Maybe I slept through some English lit classes?
Some random final thoughts on what I will always remember as “My Great Summer Book Tour”:
GREATEST PERSONAL IMPACT — A Death in the Family. This book was extraordinary in the way it captured the emotions and thoughts of a small child living through the sudden death of his father in the early 20th Century. As with many of the best writers, Agee’s ability to tell this story stems from his own experience: his childhood loss. I think this would be an excellent book for people going into the ministry, and I would love to see it discussed as a text in pastoral counseling classes. Beyond that, the beauty of the writing, Agee’s prose, was above anything I had experienced. The writing was brilliant, beautiful. This book will stay with me, it was my favorite of the summer.
BIGGEST THRILLER — All the King’s Men. This was Primary Colors, 60 years earlier. While I knew something of what to expect since I knew in advance that the character of Gov. Willie Stark was based on the life of Huey P. Long, I had no idea just how big a web would be weaved. There are a lot of jaw-dropping revelations. And reading this, you will not soon forget that “power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Tremendous story.
MOST MEMORABLE CHARACTER: Gov. Stark, and Gatsby. Stark will remain memorable to me because of his amazing ability to manipulate people and events to his favor, which, however, did have its limitations, as we find out at the end. Gatsby, Ole Sport, was just so intriguing in his wealth, arrogance, childlikeness, great mystery and ultimately his sad abandonment by his “friends.”
ON HEMINGWAY: Reading two Hemingway books gave me a real sense of the man’s writing style, and allowed me to realize the extent to which it pervades the work of other writers. The Sun Also Rises, which involves American and British expatriates traveling from Paris to watch the bullfights in Pamplona, was my favorite of the two I read. Hemingway is addictive.
MOST IMPRESSIVE EFFORT: The work that it took to produce Slaves in the Family, the only one of my selections that was not a novel. The result was a collection of rich stories that chronicle how the history of writer Edward Ball’s own family was intermeshed with those held in bondage, courageous stories of survival and the reality of the history of a people being extinguished so that another people would not have to face a shameful past.
BIGGEST POLITICAL STATEMENT: War, what is it good for? You know the answer: Absolutely nothing! That couldn’t be more clear after reading “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which describes the life of a German soldier during World War I and illustrates how armed conflict obliterates life, even for those who escape becoming physical casualties. This book was banned and burned by the Nazis.
OVERALL OBSERVATION: This is, of course, stating the obvious, but the great novels are great because they connect with the reader, and they connect with the reader because the characters are deeply flawed, yet also capable of great things. This was true in so many of the books. It is the human story that people can at one moment commit terrible acts and the next moment do great good. There is always the potential for both. The same is certainly true with many of the people who populate the pages of the Bible, searching for God in their living and their dying.
FAILURE OF THE READER: That’s me. I should have made a conscious decision to seek diversity among the writers I selected. The authors, I believe, were all Anglo, and all but one were men. There is a long-running narrative that says these books are classics. That decision was made by those who hold power, overwhelmingly white and male. Undoubtedly, other great books that were not in the “mainstream” were excluded. I would have benefitted personally by seeking out novels from different perspectives (i.e. not overwhelmingly white and male). One other thing I want to mention: The overtones of white supremacy in most of these early 20th Century novels were stunning. Hemingway’s characters, for example, make racist and anti-semitic statements as routinely and expectedly as one might order up a cup of coffee in the morning. I point this out not to say, “Look how much better than them we are today!” — but rather, to say that this brought home to me that it wasn’t that many years ago when racism and anti-semiticism were acceptable, open public discourse — not condemned in the public square. For me, this signals how large an issue race remains today in this country, not as much on the surface, as it was in the 1920s for example, but bubbling up beneath everything.