Friend: I have a little time for reading this summer—what should I read? [Waves hand at the tottering stacks of books heaped near my chair.] Looks like you could give me a suggestion or two.
Me: You remember after 9/11, the flurry of essays and TV productions and books attempting to provide historical context? A lot of loose talk about the Crusades, but not so much about the period of Muslim conquests several centuries earlier? One effect of all this (part of a larger “rediscovery” of Islam and its history outside the realm of specialists) was to stimulate the publication of shelves upon shelves of books on the Crusades, from sweeping popular treatments to meticulous scholarly monographs. You could spend many summers reading books on the subject published in the last twenty years alone. Or [pulling book from stack] you could settle down this summer with Christopher Tyerman’s The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated History, just out from Yale University Press. Tyerman’s understanding of religion is a bit jaded, but maybe that’s not surprising for a scholar who has spent so many years immersed in this subject.
Friend: Hmmm. What about something that lends itself more readily to reading in short bits?
Me: I have just the thing for you [waves brightly colored paperback]: The Best of R.A. Lafferty, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published in June by Gollancz in the SF Masterworks series. Lafferty, who lived in Oklahoma, was a late-blooming writer, a devout Catholic, and a serious alcoholic. One of the bonuses of this collection is that it features introductions to the individual stories as well as a terrific general intro by Neil Gaiman. The critic and bookman extraordinaire Michael Dirda remarks that Lafferty’s stories “revel in excess, parenthetical asides and gonzo bizarreness of every sort.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Friend: “Gonzo bizarreness of every sort,” huh? You know, I don’t really read a lot of science fiction.
Me: OK, OK. I know you like history. How about The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Arienne Fennetaux, also from Yale University Press? I’ll admit that the text is loaded with fashionable jargon, but you’re an academic, you’re used to that. The subject is fascinating, and the book is gorgeously produced. Perfect for reading a few pages each night. You’ll never think of pockets in the same way again.
Friend: I’ve never thought much about pockets one way or another, but that sounds like a possibility. Anything else?
Me: Are you interested in Simone Weil?
Friend: A bit. I don’t know her work all that well.
Me: Bloomsbury has just published the first English translation of an unfinished play by Weil set in 17th-century Venice. (The translators are Sylvia Panizza and Philip Wilson.) In addition to the play itself, the book includes some interesting background material, setting Venice Saved in the context of Weil’s life and work.
Friend: Sounds like an item for Weil completists.
Me: Earlier this year, Ice Cube Press published Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean. Full disclosure: Cindy is a dear friend. She’s also a fine writer and a peerless guide to the prairie. Her enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Keep this by your bedside for a couple of months, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be nudged to do some prairie-walking yourself.
Friend: I just might do that. Thanks much for all the suggestions. [Pauses at door.] Where are you going to put all these books?
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.