You know how, if you’re a kid, you can sign up for a Summer Reading Program at your local public library and read books in order to earn points which are then redeemable for treats like ice cream, stickers, and erasers which smell and/or look like fruit? Well, I think libraries still do this. I hope they do. Mostly I hope kids still do this because they’re the future and all and Reading = Awesome. (I would have my doubts about a future led by people who didn’t read things, many things, with comprehension and critical thinking and everything.)
Anyway, in the spirit of Summer Reading Programs, here are some of my summer reads so far (a very eclectic list and not one Girls of Canby Hall on it, which may affect the number of points I receive) with a few words about each.
Downie Jr, Leonard and Robert G. Kaiser. The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril. I had actually been hoping to read Thomas Patterson’s Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism but that wasn’t on the shelves at the library, so I pulled this title, which was written in 2002. The year it was written is important here: this book is a snapshot of life in the U.S. and journalism in the U.S. right after 9/11. 9/11 itself is in every chapter; the media response to it is a frequent example of signs of hope for journalism: journalists doing some actual journalism, which the authors hoped would be a resurgence of the quality of newspapers — spoiler: it wasn’t. The book was especially helpful on explaining the machinations of syndication and conglomeration which have decimated the local news business.The book is dated but well-written and probably a good reference for the beginnings of themes still current now: the disappearance of genuine newspapers, the decline of journalism and journalistic standards, the need for information in a sea of infotainment, the rise of cable news and internet opinion. The themes are solid and still valuable and this was worth a read, but the last chapters on the internet were nearly comical (remember when AOL was cutting-edge? Dial-up? Ah, simpler times). No fault of the authors, certainly, the times were the times at the time they were the times. Still, it’s a relevant read by smart writers who were chained to a precise moment and were writing passionately and with great depth of knowledge about something they believed in: a something that seemed big then but is leviathan and constantly moving now. I’m still jonesing for the Patterson book.
Fossier, Robert, editor: The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages, vol.2 950-1250. Not everyone’s thing is medieval history; certainly not everyone’s thing is the Middle Ages in something that is not quite the trade paperback popular history format. But the thing about me is this: if someone calls something “dry,” it’s usually an accurate indicator that I would call it “nuanced” and “pleasurable.” That being said, this volume actually was, in large sections, dry. Not in the good way. Maybe because volume one was so great, this one let me down a bit in sections. Never so much that I didn’t keep going. But weirdly for something that is an in depth study, full of details, there wasn’t enough stuff in it. It would say something really great for a paragraph and then it would move on to focus on something else for many pages. Now, 600 pages is clearly insufficient to distill three centuries into but it’s plenty of pages (of small type, too) that I shouldn’t have been thinking “where’s the rest?” But despite all that, I will be grabbing the third volume when I can because Cambridge University Press is still preferable to the Middle Ages for Dummies or whatever. In this case, until someone sends me the actual complete Cambridge University Press catalog of all the books written for the scholars on the Middle Ages and/or gives me complete access to Gesta and Speculum and Lexus/Nexus or JStor, the generalized volumes from Cambridge are probably going to be the best I can get, even this disappointing but still solid, second volume.
Keyssar, Alexander: The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. An important and remarkable book. Period. If you care about American history, if you care about voter rights, if you like to occasionally dig deeper in the Constitution, this book is for you. I think (the author thought so too) that most of us believe that the right to suffrage was mainly a straight-ish path from less inclusive voting to more. Not so much. It was intermittent and contradictory, steps forward, steps back; local and national. Because democracy is still something we’re working on and voting rights still continue to be intermittent and contradictory, this book needs to be read. It’s interesting, deeply informative, relevant, and worthwhile.
Lepore, Jill: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Having read Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness in the spring (because Book of Ages had been borrowed by someone else and I couldn’t read it yet), I had already fallen in love with Lepore’s writing. I want to write like her, or be her best friend or something. So smart. So witty. Such word choice. And such wonderful, big topics. This book (unlike ol’ Cambridge volume 2) did not disappoint. Smaller topics on the surface: the life of Benjamin Franklin, his sister, their families. These bloom into important and big subjects: the Revolution; what it means to be lost to history based on gender or exclusion or historical insignificance or chance; what circumstances and factors create a Benjamin versus a Jane; how the lives and opinions of Janes have always been as important as any Great Man Theory of History; what language, the press, and the written word mean to those who read and disseminate them. Lepore gleans so much from the close and careful study of a woman and her letters, most of which did not survive. I can’t recommend this book highly enough (or Mansion, either).
Peck, Don: Pinched. This one is based on some of my pet topics: the American economy and the opportunities and vagaries facing a U.S. where productivity and compensation are decreasingly correlated, how working hard doesn’t always equal success, the separation between the rich and the struggling. I’d use the phrase “income inequality” but I know, for me, that is way less important than the fact that just decent security appears to be out of reach for too many of us. The book was written around the time of Occupy and still has things of merit to say. It’s pretty balanced ideologically and asks some honest questions. To a greater degree than the News book, though, this book felt like a substitute for what I really want to read. It read like an extended magazine article (which isn’t the problem) and one written by an author who hasn’t nailed the words in a way other writers on the same topics have (that is a problem). At the time the book came out (2010/2011), I probably would have been more enthused about this book but too many other writers, speakers, media outlets, and politicians have traveled the same ground and done a better job of it then and since (and in this, I’m including charts by Vox media, for example). In other words: if it were still 2010, I’d recommend the book. In 2014, there are too many other ways to access really profound and complex thinking on these topics. Pinched just seems superfluous.
Schiff, Stacy: Cleopatra: A Life. Like Jill Lepore, Stacy Schiff makes me wish I wrote like she did or could be her new best friend or assistant. Schiff and Lepore write the stuff I would choose to write in exactly the ways I would want to write it if life/I had turned out differently. Witty, nuanced, surprisingly humorous, and just so smart. If you love ancient history (and who doesn’t), read this book. If you like fiction, this reads as smoothly as the best of it. The subject is a famous name though few probably know that much more about her (and, as Schiff makes plain, what you think you know is often not true: legends so frequently obscure more than they reveal and, as Schiff says, “history belongs to the eloquent”).
Austen, Jane: Mansfield Park. This was the last of the major works by Austen that I hadn’t read yet and, due to a freak “I don’t have books to read right now” moment and the fact that this one is in the public domain (free download for the Kindle? Hooray!), I read it. Of course I enjoyed it: it’s Jane Austen. If you like Austen, you pretty much like all of Austen, even the utterly dependent on the age of the Gothic novel and, my opinion, subpar Northanger Abbey. While this one is worlds better than Northanger, it doesn’t reach the heights of Pride, Sense, or Emma. I think the writing is less even here than in Austen’s other major works and the ending (of course you know the ending; you always know the ending) here feels super-rushed, although not like the book listed below, where Emily literally just could not handle it any longer. And, modern sensibilities being what they are, it feels really weird to be rooting for two cousins to make a match already. But you do, and they do, and it’s a nice way to spend a chunk of your afternoon.
Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights. Having read this one in high school, I re-visited it due to a search for moody quotes for a possible October blog post and also due to the same “out of books/Hey, it’s free” phenomenon which prompted reading Austen. Weirdly, the frame story stuck out to me this time far more than it did when I originally read it and I was frustrated and more interested in “what happens to this poor chap, Emily, huh?” than I was in Heathcliff or the Cathys or the rest. As mentioned in the Austen section above, the thing that stood out most in this book was how quickly the story was resolved: drama –> drama –> moody tumult –> and everything’s inexplicably and immediately okay now in, like, two pages. I think Emily had a fainting spell or hit the laudanum or just didn’t care any more. And maybe it occurred to her that the whole thing was built on atmosphere and moodiness and little else (all style, no substance? all sturm and no drang? all wuther and no heights?). At any rate, it wraps up laughably quickly (I actually did laugh out loud. How did I not notice the abrupt and inexplicable plot/dénouement the first time I read this?) But, for the sake of the language and complete power over the evocative, it’s worth a read (gorse, fen, moor, and wild build up a tension that is palpable and makes you long for rain and chill), especially if you never have: classics being classics and how better to get a sense of gorse and anti-heroes? I just wouldn’t necessarily read it twice, although, me being me, you never know. I may have to eventually go back to figure out the poor narrator chap. (Really, Emily???)
Juster, Norton: The Phantom Tollbooth. Call it summer re-runs, I guess, but this was a second reading, too. And I’m so glad I read this again. It’s clever and philosophical and whimsical. It’s a children’s classic and rightfully so. It speaks to what it is to be a human in a crazy age in ways that are surprisingly profound. For example, the Dodecahedron: “…it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.” Or the Mathemagician: “You’ll find…that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort. Or the Terrible Trivium: “If you only do the lazy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.” Brilliant.
Currently In Progress: Double Down (Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book about the inner workings of the various campaigns fighting it out for the 2012 presidential election), The Smartest Kids in the World (Amanda Ripley’s book on education), The Second Machine Age (Brynjolfsson and McAfee on tech, jobs, and the future). Plus, in juvenile fiction world, Adam Rex’s Cold Cereal Saga (three books total) because I’ve already read the first one, Cold Cereal, and it was amazing. I should have reviewed it, too, but channeling Emily, it’s time to just End. All. These. Words.