I love the long languid days of late summer. The lawns roasted light brown, the much longed for arrival of local tomatoes (may the good Lord deliver us from the commercially produced monstrosities), sweet corn, baseball on the radio, vacations, sighs of regret that Labor Day is close at hand—yes, there is something about August that lends itself to indulgent repose.
And reading. By the time August rolls around I’ve usually given up on my ambitious summer plans. No, the big project will not be completed. The carefully planned schedule of writing has gone completely off the rails. So I abandon myself to the wanton desire, giving myself over to lush stacks of books accumulated from random visits to used bookstores. Are there greater joys for an academic than entirely unnecessary reading?
The Hungerian-born historian John Lukacs consistently finds his way into the zigs and zags of my August reading itinerary. His books on World War II consistently satisfy with their combination of narrative drama and crisp historical judgments. His novelistic meditation on the eclipse of bourgeois culture, A Thread of Years, goes very well with a gin and tonic, preferably on the porch of a cedar shingled house on the Maine coast. It is a profound and suggestive book, one to muse over in the wind shaken summer shade.
The same holds for his autobiographical reflections, Confessions of an Original Sinner, and most recently Last Rites. Lukacs does not have a soaring genius. He has something more useful: an articulate self-consciousness that lends itself to insight. An aphoristic brevity ornaments Last Rites: “There is an unsure and anxious selfishness in the need to tell others all that one knows.”; “More important than the (horizontal) ranges of mind are the (vertical) depths of character.”; “One’s life is a pilgrimage, not a work of art”
Aphorisms are, perhaps, the ideal genre for August. Short bursts of attention fit nicely with sleepy afternoons. Some months ago I wrote about the re-publication of The Journal of Jules Renard. The irony and critical dispassion of this fin de sičcle French literary figure brings a cool sensibility to the August heat. Strongly recommended.
For a book of aphorisms warmed (but not overheated) with Enlightenment optimism, I recommend The Waste Books of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The odd title comes from the commercial practice of writing down transactions quickly in a “waste book” so that the orderly entries can be made into the account book at day’s end. Here we find the “first thoughts” of a German professor who is rationalist enough not to be a romantic, and romantic enough not to be a rationalist.
Lichtenberg penned some fine lines: “I am afraid that the excessively careful education we provide is producing dwarf fruit.”; “The swords that effect the greatest conquests are those encrusted with diamonds.” And this as a warning to students of philosophy: “I believe that delight in having understood a very abstract and obscure system leads most people to believe the truth of what it demonstrates.” Overall: pleasant, nutritious grazing.
In addition to the random pleasures of aphorisms, during August I enjoy baggy collections of essays that delight with unexpected insights. Every summer hedonist should read Walker Percy, Signposts in a Strange Land, if only to be instructed in the role of mathematics in the proper consumption of bourbon. As I recall, the crucial formula goes something like this: 100 proof times four drinks = 80 proof times five drinks. Ergo, 80 proof for the man who wants to maximize sips.
I also relish T. S. Eliot’s essays. There is something irresistibly decadent in the experience of reading his close analysis of F. H. Bradley’s prose style and his rapier thrusts into the humanism of Irving Babbit. What could be further and more opulently removed from present concerns? Reading Eliot can feel like staying in a completely unnecessary grand hotel.
For elegant prose and critical intelligence in conjunction with forgotten figures, readers should also seek out collections of literary reviews by Cyril Connelly or Edmund Gosse. Lytton Strachey satisfies as well. He has a collection under the title of Literary Essays. The prose is wickedly opinionated and exquisitely readable. Other dead writers will do, in large part because of the pleasure that comes from being guided through a spectral world of old and now discarded arguments by eclipsed eminences. Strachey on Lord Macauley or Gosse on George Gissing. (Is there a more self-indulgent syllabus of reading?)
I’m a great fan of Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, both first-rate essayists. My problem, however, is that when reading I feel the desire to underline, which corrupts the languid spirit of August. So set them aside. Better, I think, to take up someone like Richard Rodriguez, whose first books, Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation, provide moving, winsome essays that do not tax readers with intellectual ambition. His essay on the virtues of the Latin Mass is marvelous.
The same can be said for Marilyn Robinson’s very fine collection of essays, The Death of Adam. She deepens ideas that readers are likely to already have, which is both a worthy achievement in its own right, and more suitable for late summertime when a pencil is not always ready at hand and a reclined position does not lend itself to note taking.
In addition to essays, when I’m lying on the couch or lawn chair, I tend to favor memoirs. These days I’m allowing hundreds of pages of Raymond Aron’s remembrances to wash over me. Some time ago I wrote a review of Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes musing on death in the loose form a memoir. The topic is a bit gloomy, but the book is often very funny, and for the right sort of person it might work well at the beach.
I’ve yet to mention fiction. Perhaps I suffer from the tendency to take novels too seriously, tending toward either gloomy disappointment or urgent enthusiasm, both of which corrupt the late summer desire for relaxation. So I don’t tend to turn to fiction in August, because I don’t want to be engrossed. My goal is mental engagement that I can turn on and off at will.
Nonetheless, some fiction suits my end-of-summer moods. The late novels of Henry James, for example. As I recall, he once wrote to an aristocratic friend, recommending a leisurely reading of The Ambassador, no more than five or six pages per day. He didn’t mean for us to absorb his surging streams of verbiage in a great gulps. We’re to sip discretely, with a certain nonchalance and freedom for distraction. As I recall, it took me nearly a year of on-again, off-again drowsy evenings to read The Golden Bowl, which I thoroughly enjoyed (both the book and my twilights of consciousness). The overall experience was pure August: drifting off to sleep with a book open on my chest.
I’ll recommend James’ travel writing as well: English Hours and Italian Hours. (The American Scene, however, should be strenuously avoided by all who do not wish for their vacations to be spoiled by acute literary irritation.) The pleasure comes from the fact that James conveys very little information—which would in any event make for the unpleasant feeling in the reader of the duty to learn and remember. Instead, James treats his readers to sensibilities and impressions. As a result, one does not so much think as marinate, a literary sensation that goes well with cocktails.
I could go on. It may surprise some, but I’ve found the long, narrative poems of Robinson Jeffers diverting (for example, Give Your Heart to the Hawks). There is something about his elegiac voice that caresses my sensibilities, even as his dark and pessimistic imagination conjures disturbing scenes. Although perhaps the explanation is simpler: the California coast serves as the most vivid personality in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and this allows me to read him as a travel writer rather than a nihilistic prophet.
But enough. My goal is August is repose, and books can contribute a great deal. The mind pleasantly engaged by wisdom conveyed without urgency and in small, digestible portions, literary sensibilities pleased by lovely sentences, exquisite old bindings, roughly cut pages, and the musty smell of a book long shelved—these experiences sooth and caress like a cool evening breeze—and like a smooth sip of sour mash whiskey over ice.
So, cheers. Cheers to August and the right sorts of books.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is an professor of theology at Creighton University.