In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
In my continuing series of “books I read to my children at bedtime before they stop speaking to me,” the latest volume is 1908’s The Wind In The Willows. I found it in a pile of my own books from childhood that I had been saving for them, but that’s probably the last time I cracked it open. It’s an insanely lyrical book (fun to read aloud) about English woodland creatures Badger, Water Rat, Mole, and Toad, who all wear regular clothes and have decorated homes. For the life of me, I can’t figure out where all their money comes from or how they exist alongside the human world. But the world they do inhabit is extremely enjoyable to spend time in, as author Kenneth Grahame’s lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions transport you there almost immediately, like every good book should. My old version has these charming detailed illustrations by Tasha Tudor, so I stop every once in while and show them to the kids, loathe as I am to break up the rhythm of the story. Literally every night when I’m done reading, my daughter says, “That was a really good chapter.” They’re all really good chapters.
For my own transcending needs, I’m lost in the purgatory of Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders. I know I’m late to the Saunders party, but I can see why practically everyone I know is so enthralled by him. Interestingly, as with my previous book, I only have to pick it up to be sent to the mysterious spirit world where young Willie Lincoln resides, and to enjoyably spend my time trying to decipher all of the other voices while I figure out what his final fate should be. As a fan of Lincoln and history and literature that reads like poetry, I have a hard time putting it down.
I seem to have a theme going here, so for the rest of my summer reading list, I guess I’ll have to stick to “in the” books: The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit? The Girl In The Spider’s Web? The Devil In The White City? What else?
If you are anything like me, you read The Crying Of Lot 49 at some point in high school or college, understood very little of it, and have tepidly eyed Thomas Pynchon’s various massive tomes with intense trepidation ever since. Gravity’s Rainbow is, I’m sure, a singular reading experience, but if you’re a slow reader and not an astrophysicist, it’s also a yearlong odyssey that entails several other books’ worth of analysis in order to properly enjoy. I’ll get around to it sometime. My familiarity with the rest of his books is much lower, but they always seemed pointless. If I were going to spend an immense amount of time tackling one of his books, shouldn’t it be the masterpiece? Why even contemplate his more recent, almost intentionally minor works?
Well, it turns out, because they’re still brilliant, funny, inventive, worldly, surprising, poetic, and rangy. I recently started flipping through 2013’s Bleeding Edge—Pynchon’s most recent work—and found myself barreling through it for the remainder of the day. In it, he crafts a cyberpunk private-eye yarn about the deep web, 9/11, conspiracy theories, video games, and global finances, with a divorced mom taking the role of Philip Marlowe and a paranoid documentary filmmaker her femme fatale, among a billion other sharp inversions. Throughout, Pynchon displays the sort of stylistic audacity and playful intellectual leaps that have made his reputation, but he’s also utterly alive with the comic possibilities of his fiction, cramming jokes and ironies and wry asides into almost every sentence. It’s as much fun to read as it is to think about, and, in hindsight, probably a better way to crack the nut of his oeuvre than his most difficult work.
The recent news that a large portion of conservatives in this country have been so blinkered by the decades-long culture war against higher education that they believe colleges and universities are having a “negative effect” on the U.S. was a good incentive for me to finally get to a book I’ve had sitting in the middle of my to-read pile for the past couple of years: J. Peter Euben’s Corrupting Youth: Political Education, Democratic Culture, And Political Theory. Written in the ’90s, Euben’s book is largely dedicated to still-relevant issues on campuses—the debate between multiculturalists and defenders of “the canon,” to paint them all with a broad stroke—so even when it gets bogged down in minutiae regarding cultural conflicts that no longer take center stage, it’s easy to substitute contemporary concerns about trigger warnings, safe spaces, free speech vs. charges of groupthink, and the like in their place. Fair warning, however: This isn’t a general-interest nonfiction read about the value of a liberal education. As I quickly discovered, it’s a deep dive into classical Athenian thought, primarily Socratic, though it takes readers through Aristophanes, Sophocles, and more en route to arguing the pro-democratic agenda in these works.
His argument in a nutshell: Defenders of the canon often misuse the works they hold up as avatars of what might be termed a “conservative education,” and multiculturalists and others arguing against the canon of dead white guys should realize these texts are actually their allies in many ways—that the only virtue these works can ultimately teach is constant critical interrogation of self and other. While I’m enjoying it quite a bit, it’s a compilation of academic papers, written for a specialized audience. In short, it’s another ironic contribution to the common professorial refrain that these subjects—Socrates et al.—would be a net good for a wider audience, written in a manner that guarantees an academics-only readership. Lots of good ideas and thought-provoking concepts, couched in a language of interest only to those with the willingness to engage in the specialized discourse required to elucidate them. Fun!
If even just reading that description made your eyes roll so hard that the rotational energy generated by the movement caused your head to sway, allow me to recommend Final Girls by Riley Sager, a novel that takes the horror trope of the “last girl standing” as its central conceit, then spins a mystery thriller out of that premise. Three disparate women, all of whom were the sole survivors of three distinct (and distinctly brutal) massacres by serial killers over the past several decades, have been dubbed the “Final Girls” by the media. One of them, Quincy, is trying to move forward with her life as an aspiring baker, when she learns the elder of her two fellow trauma survivors has committed suicide. From there, the book quickly transitions into an “everyone’s a suspect” potboiler that managed to throw me off predicting the ending several times, with enough silly twists and layers of reveals that it stays engaging. It’s not a great book, but it’s an entertaining one, and mostly avoids the pitfalls of typical poorly written paperback-pulp dreck. I burned through it in about 48 hours, if that sweetens the pot for you, and found it to be a breezily refreshing palate cleanser after all the collegiate naval-gazing of Euben’s fascinating but dry work.