Summer reading is near upon us, and with it a challenge to feed your soul with delight


The most engaging fact of the 19 memorable recommendations on these pages is that there isn't a single duplication. The recommenders are thoughtful people all, with wonderfully diverse personal literacy. Their prescriptions of a single summer book that rises above anesthesia would provide an entire summer of delight, and more.

I shall read several, including Cal Ripken's beloved "Matilda." Have a look. Pick your own. Summer approaches. Choose well.

There are always too many books to be read, praise the Lord and the endurance of our common culture. The pile, or the list, threatens overload. You are seasonally hungry for reading that simply gives you a good feeling. Nothing earnest or over-worthy, most certainly. Something cleanly distracting.

So get tough now. Do not emulate those overambitious people who pack unreadable quantities of books off on vacation. Don't squeeze guilt into your suitcase. Never take books just to be seen lying around.

There is nothing wrong, nothing evil or damaging, about a trashy beach book. There's nothing wrong about any reading, unless a really mind-draining genre becomes narcotic; then it must be dealt with as any cruel addiction must be: resolution and discipline. Cold baths, cold turkey, 12 steps, all that.

So my fondest advice is, as ever: Have fun, for Heaven's sake. For your sake. For civilization's sake. Fun is what reading - and everything else in life that is done really, truly purposefully - must arise from, and provide. Delight is the threshold of ecstasy. Ecstasy is access to the sublime. The sublime is all that ultimately matters.

Comedy is hard

Terry Teachout, the redoubtable polymath whose case for P.G. Wodehouse appears higher on this page, underscores the point that truly funny work is seldom trivial (though trivial work can often be funny). "Dying is easy - comedy is hard" has been attributed to half the legendaries who ever trod the boards. That's as true of prose - and truer yet of poetry - as it is of theater.

The truly funny is always fun, of course, but celestial fun comes even more often from works that are not funny.

Harold Bloom, who is without near peer the greatest literary critic now writing in, or being translated into, the English language, put it well in "The Western Canon": "Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight." (Even a deconstruction-pixilated teacher or two might take notice.)

The other day at the annual print show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a dealer's booth displayed a print by Robert Ryman, the distinguished contemporary painter whose main work is entirely in white.

Argument about Ryman's work, about abstraction in general, and about monochrome painting and whether it is art at all can go on, unresolved, from dusky eve till dewy dawn. But this particular print demanded none of that; it is a textured white vertical panel looking much like one of his paintings, but with RYMAN95 inscribed over it in space-filling, deftly crude pen strokes - a recondite repudiation of abstraction itself.

"It would be great fun to have," my treasured, art-wise companion said. But its considerable price, she demurred, "is an awful lot to pay for a joke." John Waters, one of Baltimore's premier cultural ornaments and a profound aesthete, instantly rejoined: "All art is a joke."

Yes! So what's the point?

The point is fun, if the word works for you. Irony, of course, as with Ryman's burlesque of himself and with the most-often glories of Waters' delicious films. But beyond irony are other things, other confrontations, collisions of ideas. Those clashes are the heart of art - and thus of delight and ultimately of the ecstatic, of sublimity.

Liberating delight

Again, Harold Bloom gets it dead right. To read truly important literature is to "encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations ... to make you feel strange at home."

Thus, for my own most liberating summer delight, I may -may -go back to Dante. I may go back to a piece of Shakespeare.

Western literature stands on Shakespeare and Dante. Without them, nothing that was written afterward would have happened the same way. And yet for me, even in rereading the relatively familiar, there is always shock, surprise, revelation. Fun - so long as I go at it in the sure certainty that fun is what it is all about.

Don't go near the Truly Greats this summer unless you and they can play on the beach together -carefree, joyful. There is too much fine fun to be had without them - and they don't need your help, or mine.

Go easy into summer, but don't go thoughtless. Hearken to the illustrious Richard Ben Cramer (whose "What It Takes" is arguably the best-written book about American politics in the last 25 years or so).

Asked for his summer prescription, Cramer insisted: "Read something with no utility whatever except the feeding of the soul. One sure way is to give the soul something of intrinsic and lasting beauty."

His first choice is "Speak, Memory," by Vladimir Nabokov, "the best memoir of the 20th century." (Cramer has a fondness for hyperbole I just can't understand.)

But make your own choices. You know your soul better than Cramer - or I - ever can. If you find it a stranger, it's past time for you to make acquaintance with it. There's no better way to do that than by sharing a memorable book.

Pub Date: 5/05/96

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