It was a feature in the Book Review section of the June 2 Sunday New York Times. Various writers were asked to recall their most memorable summer reading experiences. For most of the contributors, the “most memorable” turned to be a book read in their teens or 20s.
Without going back to high school summer vacation reading, I remember a few summers each of which was partially defined for me, in retrospect, by a single book. What does it take for a book to stand out like that for someone who reads many in every season? It cannot be one devoured in two or three days or even a week. Instead the story must be one the reader enters and re-enters for many weeks, until it becomes like that season’s second life, and at least four summer readings like that stand out in my adult life.
During one year I worked fulltime in the office of a university department that was completely alien to what I felt should be a university experience, so naturally, I felt like the alien in the environment, and during my 45-minute lunch breaks I’d take my brown bag and a fat paperback novel outdoors to sit on the ground in the shade of a sweet-smelling pine, losing myself in another world. That was the summer I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A fellow sufferer of the same malady in another building told me, “It’s wishful thinking!” Yes, it was, and it was the best part of the day, and the book lasted me a very long time!
Then there was my first summer in Paris and the long, dreamlike experience of reading, in French translation, the incomparable Milan Kundera’s story set in Prague, L’insoutenable légèrté de l’être. Without a lot of money to spend, I would ride the Metro to a stop near the Parc Monceau, book in my bag, and choose a bench with care, then immerse myself in the story. When I’d had enough sun or the shade became chilly or I simply needed to get up and walk a bit, I’d move to another section of the park. That summer, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I commuted between Paris and Prague on a daily basis -- not to escape Paris, but simply for le plaisir de le faire. It was unforgettable.
After saying proudly, year after year, “Life is too short to read Proust,” one summer at the bookstore I fell into Combray, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. I was lost! And to think this pleasure was one I had rejected for so long and might never have had! The long, voluptuous sentences, the detail of memory, the importance of the smallest things in a child’s mind – I was carried back to my own early childhood and at the same time freshly obsessed: I wanted hawthornes! I had to find them, see them, introduce flowering hawthornes into my own life! The first postscript to this summer was my failure to be similarly charmed by the second volume (I love Paris but was bored senseless by the life of society described by the narrator), but that wasn’t the end, either. Another year -- second postscript -- I picked up the final volume, The Past Recaptured, and there was the magic again. I am not the first, a friend’s friend tells me. He has been a lifelong scholar of Proust and says that many people read only the first and last volumes of the multivolume work. It's entirely probable that I will never finish with Proust, as long as I live, and that's just fine.
Now we come to the recent past, so recent that my fourth very memorable summer-read book is one that came into my life since I began “Books in Northport,” and I wrote about it here in my blog. That means I don’t have to do it again but can simply put a link in for those interested. In fact, I think I won’t even put the title here. Whoever’s sufficiently curious can follow the link and learn of the other world I inhabited one June not all that long ago.
Was there a summer you lived an alternate life in the pages of a book? Where were you, and what was the book?