Idle Reading

Summertime, and the reading is easy…. Well, maybe not easy exactly, but July and August are hardly the months to start working your way through the works of Germanic philosophers. Save Hegel, Heidegger, and Husserl for the bleaker days of February.

No, what you want at this time of the year are the books that you can idly pick up, readily put down, then lazily pick up again, as you snooze in a hammock or toast in the sun.  Neither too absorbing or too emotionally demanding, they should lull, inspire reveries, provoke a smile, or maybe set off a few memories suitable for an afternoon’s daydreaming.  If summer were a movie, it would be a stylish romantic comedy like The Princess Bride or To Catch a Thief.

While people’s tastes obviously vary, certain books and authors just seem right for those long slow days of doing nothing much at all. Take P. G. Wodehouse.  A good omnibus of his work is, like Keats’s Grecian urn, a joy forever. Open to any page of his stories—the most famous are about Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings Castle, and the extended Mulliner family—and in under a minute you’ll be accosted by strangers who’ll want to know why you’re beaming from ear to ear: “She was not normally an unkind girl but the impulse of the female of the species to torture the man it loves is well known. Women may be ministering angels when pain and anguish wring the brow; but if at other times she sees a chance to prod the loved one and watch him squirm, she hates to miss it.”

Wodehouse collections are thick upon the ground these days, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Just make sure you get one that includes his most head=spinningly funny short story, “Uncle Fred Flits By.”  If you want to try the Master at novel length, look for a copy of Leave It to Psmith or The Small Bachelor—these are early works, but just as madcap as the better-known Right Ho, Jeeves; Very Good, Jeeves!; and The Code of the Woosters. Ultimately, though, one reads Wodehouse more for the delightful prose and outrageous similes than for the intricate Rube Goldberg plots. “He looked haggard and care-worn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to put cyanide in the consommé, and the dinner gong due any minute.”

Now if, poor soul, you should be among those unfortunates who find the world of Wodehouse unbearably silly and twee, you could substitute The Thurber Carnival. In these pages you’ll find the great American humorist’s best work, including “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”—”ta-pocketa, pocketa”—and his book-length memoir My Life and Hard Times. This last, one of the true peaks of American humor, quietly, almost stealthily opens, “I suppose the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.” Above all, don’t miss that ingenious Thurberian jeu d’esprit “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” in which the stunned reader learns who really killed King Duncan.

Speaking of murder, the summer is also a good time for classic short tales of mystery and the supernatural. Note that word “classic.” When it’s time for that week at the seashore, don’t tote along some modern anthology of gritty, gut-wrenching stories spattered with Hannibal Lecter-style atrocities, ultra-violent crimes, and nausea-inducing denouements. What you’re looking for is something far more restful—clever puzzles, eccentric detectives, atmospheric tales of the uncanny.

You certainly can’t go wrong with a good collection of Victorian and Edwardian detective stories.  Excellent choices include The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime and The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime, both compiled by Michael Sims, and  two inexpensive Dover paperback anthologies edited by Douglas G. Greene: Detection by Gaslight and Classic Mystery Stories.  You might add Michael Cox’s Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection and you’d have enough great who- and howdunits to last a whole summer and most of the autumn. Naturally, these anthologies include relatively familiar, but infinitely rereadable work by Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, but also dozens of underappreciated gems such as Robert Barr’s “The Duchess of Wiltshire’s Diamonds ” and E. W. Hornung’s “Nine Points of the Law” (about Raffles, the Gentleman Burglar).  Of course, if you can turn up a copy of Hugh Greene’s out-of-print The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, you should a grab it, as well as any, or all, of the three further “Rivals of SH” collections. Like his brother, the novelist Graham Greene, Hugh was a great aficionado of the genre and chose only the best for his survey of turn-of-the century crime fiction.

 As most readers know, Barnes & Noble reprints many kinds of classics in low-priced and attractive hardcover editions.  Still, I think Michael Kelahan has outdone himself with his two recent B&N anthologies: The Screaming Skull and Other Classic Horror Stories and The Body Snatcher and Other Classic Ghost Stories. Everything selected by Kelehan, who provides a brief headnote to each tale, really is a masterpiece. The Screaming Skull strikes me as particularly strong, as it ranges from Hawthorne’s unsettling “Young Goodman Brown” and M. R. James’s “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”  to W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” The last are arguably the two best scary stories of all time.  On the other hand, The Body Snatcher includes two of the greatest ghost stories ever written, and oddly enough both are set at sea: Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the Pole-Star,” in which a wispy something is haunting a ship sailing into arctic waters, and F. Marion Crawford’s terrifying “The Upper Berth.” It also includes Edith Wharton’s elegantly haunting “Afterward” and Oliver Onions’s long, unforgettable, evocatively titled “The Beckoning Fair One.” There are at least a score of other delicious chillers in these two volumes, and needless to say, you’ll want both for those quiet evenings up at the cabin in the woods. The saving grace here, of course, is the patina of age: While the plots are thrilling, the telling tends to be slightly dated and quite leisurely. The truly gruesome usually takes place offstage. As a result, such tales may provoke a shiver or two and will certainly linger in the memory, but they won’t lead to a month of nightmares.  Think Masterpiece Theatre, not Saw 3

In my experience, lying on a beach blanket tends to provoke two kinds of reverie. Given the surrounding abundance of firm young flesh and the absence of much in the way of cloth to cover it, one is likely to drift into mildly erotic fantasy.  Alternately, the combination of hot sun, limbs weary from swimming, and the aftereffects of that second gin and tonic lead the mind into a kind of woozy philosophizing. One reflects on life’s rich tapestry, on career blunders and mishaps, on roads not taken or not yet taken, and on the various Big Questions.

For these two moods, you need an anthology of poetry and a collection of aphorisms.  Most lyric poetry is about love, whether yearned after, fulfilled, or wistfully regretted; what isn’t tends to consist of  laments and cris du coeur over this, that, and the other.  With a good anthology in hand, one may sigh over Tennyson’s lines about  kisses “sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned / On lips that are for others” or murmur, yet again, the seductive blandishments of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress:” “Had we but world enough and time…”

If you don’t already own a good collection of poetry—for shame!—you should consider acquiring one of the standard warhorses: An updated version of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, almost any edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, one of those newish volumes reprinting the mysteriously tabulated hundred best poems in English, or an old paperback of Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems of the English Language. You might even resurrect that battered Norton anthology you used in freshman English. Who knows? Perhaps some attractive but very nearsighted stranger will mistake you for a college student—or an extremely well preserved professor. You never know.

Alternately, you might take along a single poet’s collected works—Yeats, Hardy, or Elizabeth Bishop would work well—or a specialized volume such as W. H. Auden’s Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets (full of good things) or even The Faber Popular Reciter, compiled by Kingsley Amis, or Martin Gardner’s Best Remembered Poems. These last two gather all the old-fashioned tub-thumpers that are so corny and so wonderful, from “The Raven” to “Invictus” to “Gunga Din.” How can any aging Baby Boomer, now in his or her own sixties, think back to summer of ’68 and not thrill to the last lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Though much is taken, much abides, and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

While poetry tends to appeal to the heart (in the widest sense), aphorisms, maxims, and epigrams address the intellect. Such thought nuggets briskly tell us how to live or how to endure the splendors and miseries of existence. For general browsing, you can’t beat The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, compiled by John Gross, and The Viking Book of Aphorisms, edited by W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger. Each arranges its chosen cynicisms, savageries, and proverbs by category. More recently, though, I’ve come to prefer Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, which is organized by author. Geary provides a brief biography of, say, La Rochefoucauld or Emerson, then presents a dozen or more of the writer’s sharpest bon mots or tastiest bonbons. Such a format allows the reader a clearer sense of each author’s particular worldview. Here, for instance, are some observations by Albert Einstein, not the first person one thinks of as an aphorist:

I do not know with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

As a possible stopgap for readers on a tight budget, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—or one of its many rivals—provides both poetry (in bits and pieces) and plenty of pungent remarks about the ways of the world. You can readily buy a recent edition or just pick up some broken-backed hardcover at a yard sale. When my middle son bummed around Southeast Asia last summer, the only book he carried was an abridged paperback version of Bartlett’s.

 Turn to any page of a good “quote book” and you’ll find stanzas of verse, ringing phrases from sermons and speeches, memorable passages from novels, and lots of odd information. I just took down an early edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and it fell open to page 305. Here one learns that Friedrich von Klinger originated the phrase “Sturm und Drang” and John Knox titled a pamphlet “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” Turn the page, and Arthur J. Lamb is credited with “She’s a bird in a gilded cage,” which significantly appears just above Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron as “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” After Lady Caroline comes essayist Charles Lamb, and he takes up two pages. He coined the phrase “half as sober as a judge”—which he himself seldom was—and also maintained that “The greatest pleasure I know, is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.”

So short stories, short poems, short bits of prose—there does seem to be a pattern here. What could be even shorter? Captions, of course. While those monumental tomes that gather the complete cartoons of Gary Larson, Gahan Wilson, or Don Martin require sturdy lecterns, one can still readily pick up paperback selections of their life-brightening work. There are any number of New Yorker albums floating around out there, as well as older treasuries devoted to such pen-and-ink masters as George Price, Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Sempé, George Booth and, once again, Thurber. In one of my favorite Thurber drawings—many, by the way, are included in The Thurber Carnival—a lawyer points to a full-grown kangaroo while addressing a shocked courtroom witness: “Perhaps this will refresh your memory.” The bulk of Gahan Wilson’s cartoons originally appeared in Playboy, and I’ve never forgotten the one—first seen while surreptitiously skimming through the magazine at a drugstore—in which scores of people are bowing and scraping, like pagan worshippers in a Cecil B. DeMille epic, before the figure of a gigantic zero. The caption: “Is Nothing sacred?”

Of course, sometimes one is just too lethargic, sleepy, or hung over even to read a caption. At such times, consider the attractions of an old copy of, say, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation or John Updike’s Just Looking: Essays on Art, or Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. You can drowsily enjoy the many pictures of beautiful paintings, buildings, and objets d’art, and, if you should happen to nod off, passersby will notice the book on your lap and immediately define you as a man or woman of rare taste and cultivation. (Later on, when you are again able to summon up just a bit of energy, be sure to go back and actually read the elegant commentary of Sir Kenneth, Updike, and Hughes.)  Another suggestion: Taschen sells cheap but hefty paperbacks reproducing the work of every major artist and photographer, as well as theme-based volumes of illustrations covering women’s fashion, pulp magazine covers, movie stars, and the infinite variety of sexual fetish. Any of these albums will fill up an idle hour with the stuff that dreams are made of.

In the end, though, sometimes the very best of all summer books is a blank notebook. Get one big enough and you can practice sketching the lemon slice in your drink or the hot lifeguard on the beach or the vista down the hill from your cabin. You might keep a journal, work up a few naughty limericks, or start on that novel, perhaps record your own Great Thoughts, or, if worse comes to worse, even make To Do Lists for when you get back home from vacation. As Shakespeare once observed: Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.