Summer Reading Recap

At the end of May, I put together a list of books I hoped to read over the next three months. This was a new exercise for me – ordinarily, especially now in retirement, I pick up a book on a whim, and I often abandon one book when something else catches my fancy. A good look at my bookshelves reveals more than a few books with bookmarks indicating stopping points.

On the whole, I found the list to be a good thing. Perhaps the fact that I thought carefully about what I wanted to read while I was constructing the list made me more committed to reading each of them. But I also think that making the commitment and having the list to remind me of the commitment made a difference. And making the commitment in public – even to the small public that happens to stumble on the blog – surely made a difference as well.

It’s worth mentioning again that the inspiration for the 20 books of summer challenge grew in part out of the frustration of one who was purchasing books at a rate faster than she was reading them. I suffer from (or with?) the same problem, and many of the books on my list are books that were already on my shelves. So that collection is at least a little smaller than it was before.

Still, the commitment wasn’t iron-clad. Some of the books on the list were ones I purchased in the past few months, and– I also allowed myself the freedom to replace two of the books on the original list, in each case because I stumbled on a different book in my book store travels. All in all, then, a good exercise for me, and one I plan to repeat this fall. (Speaking of public commitments, here’s another – I’ve almost finalized the list of books for the fall, and I’ll be posting that here in the blog soon.)

I mentioned above that I’m now retired, and I admit that one of the privileges of retired life is the gift of time. I have household responsibilities, but these are also less demanding than they once were since our son is out on his own in the world.

So – here’s the list, with a few brief notes about each of them.

  • Eleanor Catton, Birnam Wood – This is one recommended by my local independent bookstore. I wouldn’t have picked it myself, but I found it to be an engaging discussion of an encounter between a deranged version of Elon Musk (could there be such a person?) and a less thoughtful and deliberate version of Bill McKibbon. Some interesting character development. I have to say, though, that I was disappointed in the ending – a bit too contrived, as though Catton needed to find any way out of the world she had created.
  • Naomi Alderman, The Power – This is one in which I think that the inspiring idea is much better than the execution.
  • A.M. Homes, The Unfolding – An interesting exploration of the world of people in the U.S. who are unsettled by the election of Barack Obama, though I have to say that it seems much less fantastical now than it might have seemed back in 2008.
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger – McCarthy, as usual, succeeds in creating a world even darker than our own. I’m still thinking about how the title plays out in the book’s story, but holding back on that until I read Stella Maris, the companion volume.
  • Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers – Perhaps this is better understood as an account of Hartshorne’s philosophy than of the philosophers whose work he discusses.
  • Elisa Gabbert, The Word Pretty – I found this one to be engaging in pieces rather than as a whole.
  • George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – Saunders helped me to think about what a writing process might be, and he also pushed me to think more carefully about the fiction that I read. One question that will stay with me: “Why is this character (or event, or theme) introduced in the story?”
  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities – I’ve wanted to read this book for years, and I’m really glad that I finally read it. On a personal level, Jacobs helped me to understand better than I had before why I wanted to give up my car and move into the city – especially since Boston’s North End, a neighborhood she celebrates in the book, is steps from our front door.
  • Lester J. Cappon (ed), The Adams-Jefferson Letters – I found the initial half or so of the book to be rather ponderous, as Adams and Jefferson discussed challenges they faced in their embassy work. But the letters they wrote each other in retirement were really, really interesting.
  • May Sarton, A World of Light; replacing The House by the Sea on the original list – Maria Popova inspired me to pick up The House by the Sea. I was looking for a copy in a used book store and stumbled on a signed first edition of A World of Light. That not only led me to change books, but also opened up an exploration of the relationships between Sarton, Julia Huxley, and Evie Ames. I hope to be writing more about that later. For now, I’ll say that Sarton here develops some very touching literary portraits of a wide variety of people important to her, including her parents.
  • John McPhee, The Crofter and the Laird – I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about John McPhee and his writing before stumbling on this book. I can already say that this is not my favorite of his books, but he surely can put a sentence (and a paragraph) together.
  • Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, In Love with the World – a fascinating exploration of what it means for a monk who is convinced that life is ephemeral to confront death.
  • Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being – An interesting posthumous collection of five essays, two written very early in Woolf’s life and three written late in life. I suppose it’s not surprising that I found the later essays much more insightful. The comment I remember best: when Woolf encountered a man who had written a rather negative review of her book, she said “You can’t hate my books more than I hate yours.” This in an essay called “Am I a snob?”
  • Annie Dillard, For the Time Being – Dillard describes the book as “a nonfiction first-person narrative, but it is not intimate, and its narratives keep breaking.” I think she’s right on both counts. I struggled with the breaking narratives, but she did (and does) have me thinking about natural calamity in a world that appears in some ways to be an orderly world.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet – A friend gave me a copy of this book years ago as a celebration of my finishing my dissertation. I regret that I didn’t read it then.
  • Samantha Rose Hill, Hannah Arendt – Like many others, I’ve turned to Arendt in an attempt to understand better the different dynamics of our world today. It’s both terrifying and illuminating to read her and about her.
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Song of the Cell – I can’t claim to remember all of the science and history of science that Mukherjee discusses here, but I found it to be a really engaging discussion of both. The Whiteheadian in me was particularly touched by his insistence toward the end of the book that we won’t understand fully how different cells in our body function until we see each of them as part of a larger complex process.
  • Shane O’Mara, In Praise of Walking – A wonderful discussion of the joy of walking, informed by research into the benefits of walking and of how we came to walk in our evolutionary development.
  • Neil Theise, Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being, replacing Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World on the original list. This was one of my bookstore discoveries. Theise is both a research scientist and a practicing Buddhist, and he’s pushing for enriching the understanding gained by natural science with the insights of a meditative practice.
  • Terrence Real, I don’t want to talk about it – I came to this book asking questions for a friend. I found Real’s distinction between covert and overt depression to be very, very helpful.

I completed reading the original list a few days into August, and I found that I couldn’t stop. So here are some bonus books of the summer:

  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo — I’m really frustrated that I’m not able to read while on a moving vehicle. I decided to try something different (for me) on a train to New York City this past summer – and audio book. I don’t know that I’ll do it regularly – I still want to read the printed word – but I found that the audio version of this book heightened the sense of tragedy in Lincoln’s confrontation with the death of his son.
  • Mohsin Hamid, Exit West – Another audio book, this one because Covid had me unable to focus on a page for a week or so. I wasn’t sleeping well either, and listening to this got me through the worst of the nights. An apocryphal tale of a world falling apart in the wake of governmental failure and environmental collapse.
  • Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters – See above comment about the importance of Arendt.
  • Hiroko Oyamada, The Hole – I found this on the “staff recommends” table in Three Lives & Company, a delightful small bookstore in New York City. I wouldn’t have found it on my own. It’s a rather fantastical account of a woman settling into an environment that’s both familiar and strange. Something like Alice in Wonderland.
  • Hua Hsu, Stay True – On the surface, a young man’s writing about what he found to be a rather unlikely but deeply moving relationship with one of his college friends. Knowing before I started the book that the friend dies a tragic death had me anticipating the moment, but it still overwhelmed. And the reflections move beyond that friendship to cover the how the author came to be the person that he is.
  • Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Between Friends – The extended correspondence of two life-long friends. The letters offer considerable insight into the lives and identities of both of them, and also into the cultural world in which they lived. Of particular relevance today, I think, is McCarthy’s observation, after having dinner with Robert Oppenheimer, that he was “completely and perhaps even dangerously mad. Paranoid megalomania and a sense of divine mission” (p. 83).
  • Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times – A portrait of a wide variety of men (and one woman) who lived in dark times. It has me wondering what I might do in current times.
  • Han Kang, Greek Lessons – A fascinating story about a man losing his vision and his relationship with a woman who loses the ability to speak.
  • John McPhee, Tabula Rasa – This is a really good collection of short and longer pieces describing papers that McPhee considered writing earlier in his career but for various reasons decided not to write. So he’s writing about topics he decided not to write about, and even writing about the non-writing. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of a great writer. Along the way, the reader learns various factoids. One that struck me – he reports that the big pharma companies employ linguists to come up with names for the drugs they develop. Each drug gets two names: a brand name – catchy and easy to remember – and a generic name – unwieldy, more difficult to spell, remember, and/or pronounce. Now why would they do that?