A year ago I posted my thoughts on how much one could, realistically, expect to read over a summer break, responding in part to the lists of recommendations that feature so regularly in newspapers and magazines at this time of year. As always, I was over-optimistic in my intentions, more of which below. In fact, I was as over-optimistic as the more official lists of suggestions seem to be when contributors recommend recently published hardbacks for the public’s attention without pausing to factor the words ‘airline baggage allowance’ into the mix. Perhaps such lists are a) for those who read on electronic devices, b) for those who holiday in the UK and have stocked up on books before the post-Brexit pound becomes utterly worthless or c) for those who send their luggage on ahead when holidaying.
If the mass of planned and proposed holiday reading were not itself enough to make the reader feel daunted, the investment of time presupposed by so many titles often has the same effect. Wonderfully weighty histories, biographies, and novels demand attention now because, the logic runs, if you can’t read it on holiday when will you do so? With the teaching term now over until September that logic saw me devote a fortnight to Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ recently and I’m so pleased that I did: rarely have the complexities of the Middle East’s history and present been rendered in so lucid a form.
Personally, I’m lucky enough to be heading to Russia in a few weeks for a long-anticipated holiday to Moscow, a city that I’ve longed to see from days of studying Russian and Soviet history in school and onwards. Naturally, a refresher course in Russian literature seems good preparation; but which books to select for so immense a task? And what of the wealth of recent reportage from the country, like Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible’? Is there time to re-read some Nabokov before I go, or would a historical refresher on the Soviet period be more useful? Once again, options proliferate more quickly that available hours appear.
Leaving that aside, there’s also the ‘canonical novel(s) that one ought to have read by now but hasn’t yet done so’ demanding summer attention. A passing comment at a conference last week convinced me that this is to be the season for Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Roads to Freedom’ trilogy and, as these are helpfully available as individual volumes rather than a single 1000-page doorstop I was able to polish off ‘The Age of Reason’ (the first volume) last week in little time at all. And rather good it was too, so I’m not daunted by the thought of taking on ‘The Reprieve’ (volume two) this week. Not Russian, of course, but justifiable in some way for its relevance to my own work. The temptation, having read Andy Martin’s account of the Sartre-Camus rivalry ‘The Boxer and the Goalkeeper’, is to go back and spend the summer (re)reading Camus’ work, even though the Sussex coast is not quite the same as those brilliantly evocative descriptions of swimming in the sea to cool off from an Algerian summer. I’ve read those books many times already, though, so perhaps that would be cheating. Sartre it is, then.
Of course, as I said earlier, these lists are always a little optimistic in scope. Looking at the post I wrote last summer I made some comment about catching up with Thomas Mann, which meant, in reality, that I read ‘Dr Faustus’ over the course a very enjoyable few days in Ghent but didn’t go beyond that. Not exactly ‘job done’, though, so perhaps if I do manage to complete Sartre’s trilogy and find intellectual freedom I can decide whether or not to pull that copy of ‘Buddenbrooks’ off the shelf and fulfil last summer’s good intention. Then again, the summer holidays may well have ended by that point.