Any day now, the subject of summer reading will be coming up. Newspapers and magazines will provide lists of what to take to the beach, the mountain cabin, the cruise, or the back yard. Books will assume a visible image; they will come into their own as physical objects, equipment to be packed in car trunks or mailed on ahead.
They will strike a fashion note. They will dress a summer stage set; drawn or photographed as part of the seasonal regalia. Advertisements will show them lying open on a wicker chair, along with a tennis racket, a terry-cloth robe and a pitcher of gin fizzes on a table nearby. The ads are more likely to be for the wicker, the racket, the robe or the gin than for the books; still, it is their moment of consumer glory. Their season in the sun. In the publishing trade, "summer reading" has a certain connotation, though it's a little hard to define. One possibility is to think of it as any book whose pages could properly be tinted green. Elaine Dundy's "The Dud Avocado" had green pages when it came out 30 or so years ago; the idea being that this would cut down on the beach glare. It was a sensible idea but hasn't been much imitated.
In fact, though, "summer reading" is something quite different from summer reading. In fact, all real reading is summer reading.
Ever since I became known to my friends as someone who reads books year round, and is supposed to know something about them, I find that quite a few of these friends call up or write me in May or early June. They want suggestions about what to take along or stay home with.
But they are not after potential green-pagers. They want to know, after a year of bobbing along in the backwash of vaguely noted reviews of books they haven't had time to read, what is stirring, splendid, and a sheer delight.
A summer vacation is not essentially about going anywhere, though that often comes into it. It is about a chance, or the dream of a chance, to be or become the self you hope you are capable of being, if it weren't for all the demands of the rest of the year. Vacations offer the illusion of a wider or deeper identity; which may be why people often suffer a high state of pre-vacation nervousness.
Most of our lives are taken up by assignments--professional, domestic and personal. If we are lucky, we have chosen some of them. At the moment of choosing, they are our definition of who we are or would like to be. But our sense of identity persists in lying beyond these definitions, these choices, and these assignments.
At school, there was something called assigned reading; much of it perfectly good. But most of the real good I ever got out of reading was what was unassigned.
What I took in from Plato were the pages before and after the marked pages. I read Shakespeare in school and college, but it was only during a post-college year of wandering about that I read all the plays (well, not "Pericles," "Timon of Athens," or "Comedy of Errors"). Reading them that way was like meeting someone for lunch after meeting her in class.
Later on, I discovered that all the best reading was accomplished at a kind of cross-purpose with whatever situation I was in.
It is sure death to read Joyce's "Ulysses" in an academic setting. The first time I read it for pure pleasure and instruction--after reading it in a kind of self-imposed rigor mortis as a school boy--was during a month on a small Greek island. Cicadas walked across the page. The second time was not during but after three years' of visiting Ireland and Northern Ireland as a journalist. Ireland only sank in and gave an entirely new dimension to "Ulysses" on a Spanish beach.
Boswell's "Life of Johnson" became a necessary voice of ordered wit and caution during the boundless excitement of Czechoslovakia in 1967 and 1968. A different kind of orderliness made Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" a cool solace during two months of contending with Cuba's more bureaucratic enthusiasm.
Four volumes of Trollope's "Barchester Cycle" made perfect reading for a vacation during an assignment in France. To read Trollope during an earlier stay in England would have been unbearable; I read "Don Quixote," instead.
"Portnoy's Complaint" seemed marvelously fresh during a brief stay in Israel in 1970, when sporadic hostilities with Egypt were still going on. Perhaps that is an exception to this history of literary elsewhereness that I seem to be compiling; it could be argued that "Portnoy" is simply one more manifestation of the troubles in the Middle East.
In any case, it was all a form of summer reading. Summer, in the sense of seeming to lie at cross purposes with whatever, ostensibly, was going on outside. Another word, of course, is escapist.