Up to the time I toddled off to Oberlin College at the age of 17, I devoured books almost without thought, certainly without any overt purpose, gobbling up everything I could find from thrift-shop paperbacks to new hardcovers borrowed from the library. As my puzzled mother used to say, my nose was always stuck in a book — a grotesque phrase, but not half so much as the complaint that today’s kids all have their eyes glued to their cellphones.
Recently, memories of those long-ago days were brought home to me with a pang: In late April, I drove to Lorain, Ohio, to help my sisters clear out the house where we’d grown up. For three days, I boxed up my old books, papers, letters and various childhood treasures, then packed them into an aging Mazda SUV. There wasn’t time for nostalgia, though, since 1031 West 29th St. would be sold at a sheriff’s auction on April 26 for the nonpayment of taxes. It went for $66,000. As to how and why this traumatic event came about — well, that’s another story, as Kipling says so often in “Plain Tales From the Hills.”
Since returning home, I’ve been gradually sifting through those boxes, most of them containing landmarks along the path of my early reading. Here, for instance, is a large (7 by 10 inches) paperback of Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” as “Especially edited and abridged for The Golden Picture Classics by Edward Robinson” and “Illustrated by Hamilton Greene.” Published in 1957, it cost 50 cents. I later saved up to buy three other Golden Picture Classics: “Robin Hood,” “The Three Musketeers” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” How I loved them all when I was 9!
The following year, I apparently couldn’t resist a pair of novels titled “Cheyenne and the Lost Gold of Lion Park,” by Steve Frazee, and “Maverick,” by Charles I. Coombs, both based on then-popular TV shows. Their shiny plasticky covers spotlight the actors who starred as those western heroes: Clint Walker is shown at a campsite cleaning his rifle, while James Garner strides purposefully down the wooden sidewalk of some dusty western town, doubtless en route to his next poker game. For the longest time, I daydreamed of becoming a professional riverboat gambler, even going so far as to learn how to deal seconds from a close study of “Scarne on Cards.” James Bond, you will recall, consults this same John Scarne classic before his epic bridge game with Hugo Drax in “Moonraker.”
Most of my childhood books will eventually be given away, though the well-cared-for Raymond Chandler paperbacks will join a run of that writer’s first editions now on my shelves. After all, it was in this 50-cent Pocket Book from 1965, titled “Trouble Is My Business,” that I first encountered the celebrated opening of Chandler’s “Red Wind”: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
If any story belongs in the category of “summer reading,” that novella would certainly make the cut, along with Albert Camus’ existential fever-dream, “The Stranger,” and W.F. Harvey’s horror-suspense story, “August Heat.” Still, I almost certainly didn’t read “Red Wind” in the summer. At no time did my father like to see me with “my nose in a book” and never when the weather was nice. “Reading,” he insisted, “is for the winter when you can’t go outside.” Besides, Dad would repeatedly point out, “you’re way too flabby. You need to put on some muscle.”
All these years later, I still find it surprisingly hard to read for pleasure during the summer. Shouldn’t I be making hay — or at least cutting grass — while the sun shines? To moderate my guilt, from June to early September, I consequently gravitate to serious, substantial books, the kind that — on the surface at least — seem more like work than play. For example, in July, I’m planning to review a new translation of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Maybe I’ll even get to Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” one of the titles on my “Better Late Than Never” bucket list.
Yet, thinking about all this, should any of us waste our summers on the trendy and ephemeral when long stretches of empty time in July and August are ideal for sustained reading, even for research? After all, few pleasures equal the satisfaction of slowly (if never quite) mastering some tiny corner of the world’s knowledge. A few years ago, two of my friends, neither in holy orders, actually spent a summer reading Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica.”
That said, serious reading doesn’t necessarily mean toting volumes from the “Great Books of the Western World” to the beaches of the Eastern Shore. You could, for example, chart a summer around the maritime adventures of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, starting with “Master and Commander.” If your job has shrunk your life to little more than what the French call “Métro, boulot, dodo” — subway, work, sleep — you can probably use the sparkiness of a few Georgette Heyer romances or P.G. Wodehouse comedies.
Or how about a deep dive into the Battle of Gettysburg, the history of women’s suffrage, Hollywood in the silent era, the Renaissance witch-craze or the teachings of Taoism? The ambitious could even survey high spots of 20th-century British fiction. Imagine 10 weeks spent with Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius,” Ivy Compton-Burnett’s “Manservant and Maidservant,” Malcom Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World,” Anthony Burgess’s “Earthly Powers” and Angela Carter’s “Nights at the Circus.” By September, you could look back on a summer worth celebrating.
Still, summer doesn’t technically begin until June 21, so before buckling down to Dostoevsky or Spenser, there’s just enough time for me to revisit one or two favorites from my early adolescence. Somewhere in all these boxes brought back from Lorain are two or three collections of Don Martin’s cartoon-stories from Mad Magazine, one of which includes his Karbunkle and Fester Bestertester classic “The Hardest Head in the World.” I’m also on the lookout for “Dealer’s Choice: The World’s Greatest Poker Stories,” edited by Jerry D. Lewis, and science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s seasonally appropriate, and sexy, “The Door Into Summer.” But most of all, I want to laugh again over Max Shulman’s “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and his even funnier novel, “Barefoot Boy With Cheek,” the latter now a quite unimaginable account of zany collegiate life. After all these years, I still remember that its backwoods hero, Asa Hearthrug, during moments of high emotion, invariably exclaims, “Huzzah!”
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