Editor’s Notebook: Endless summer reading

May 26, 2021 6:10 am
Six volumes of Marcel Proust on a table with a spiral notebook and a summery drink

New Hampshire offers the perfect settings for summer reading. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

My summer reading tastes vary from month to month and year to year. Sometimes it’s a combination of Carl Hiaasen and John D. MacDonald – those masterly Floridians whose novels may as well be sold with a cold beer and a dozen oysters. Other years, I desperately try to fill the yawning gaps in my knowledge by stacking up nonfiction books by Barbara Ehrenreich, Simon Schama, David McCullough, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others, although most of the time these worthy volumes become fall/winter reading as I repeatedly fail to stay focused on hard facts beneath a bright sun. Most years, out of ease and in the spirit of community, I cherry-pick from the fiction best-seller lists (which once in a while leads you to the perfection of Ann Patchett and Jesmyn Ward).

Several summers ago, I took on what I considered to be the greatest challenge of them all, the Everest of my reading life: Modern Library’s six-volume edition of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” I imagined getting that glorious cocktail-party question – “What’s your favorite book?” – at which point I would straighten my invisible bowtie and smooth my nonexistent mustache and say in an unidentifiable-but-certainly-snooty accent: “Undoubtedly, it would have to be Proust’s masterwork, ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ ” 

But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume I: Swann’s Way, Page 23

But here’s what I figured out about “the classics” despite the high-brow reputation: There’s no entrance exam for any novel, classic or modern. All it takes is time and curiosity – the great writers take care of the rest. And if one book doesn’t do anything for you, close it. Why waste time on a writer who doesn’t move you when there are more books than you could read in a thousand lifetimes? Proust, it turns out, is very readable and relatable. And so by the time I was halfway through “Swann’s Way,” I realized “In Search of Lost Time” wouldn’t be my Everest after all but rather a long walk in a meadow dotted with shade trees of run-on sentences. 

The men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in the reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grove, Pages 175-176

Because I was so impressed with myself for undertaking the task, I decided to keep a quote journal – the first and only time I’ve ever done that. Whenever I came across a passage I found particularly insightful, I would write down part of the quote in a cheap spiral notebook with a corresponding page number and volume. I was so intoxicated by my own self improvement that I sometimes jotted down philosophical takeaways from what I had read that, upon review, were not quite as deep as I imagined. But as someone who remembers the feeling of books but rarely the details, I am grateful for the work I did back then. 

We strive all the time to give our life its form, but we do so by copying willy-nilly, like a drawing, the features of the person that we are and not of the person we should like to be.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume III: The Guermantes Way, Page 250

Sometimes, where you read is nearly as important as what you read. Clearly I’m biased, but I don’t know of a more beautiful setting for summer reading than New Hampshire. A day at Wallis Sands in Rye calls for taking another crack at Twain’s “Following the Equator” or rereading Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Sitting on a bench in downtown Concord on a Sunday afternoon, you could do worse than “After the Winter” by Guadalupe Nettel or anything by Cornell Woolrich. A hike up Mount Kearsarge becomes a little more magical if you invite E.M. Forster or Anton Chekhov. In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that difficult to come up with companion volumes for each of New Hampshire’s nearly 1,000 lakes.

A man of great talent will normally pay less attention to other people’s foolishness than would a fool.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah, Page 118

I was a late bloomer as a reader. I preferred toys to books as a kid, and sports took most of my time as a teenager. In my 20s, I bought plenty of books but read few of them because I was too busy, well, being in my 20s. But right around the time I turned 30, when the rhythm of life became more ballad than fanfare, I found myself craving not escape from domestic life but expansion. What I really wanted was to step into someone else’s life in a different place, just for a moment, while the kids were napping or before I slept in preparation for the day to come, which was likely to be nearly identical in many ways to the day before.

The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume V: The Captive and the Fugitive, Page 343

Whether and what you read is, of course, a personal choice. And I make no claims that you will become a better or happier person if you tackle a classic or two. But I will say this, with confidence, about what I have learned from reading great books: There’s no better way to live many lives within the one we are given.

No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die. But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to. We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men’s works than to men.

– In Search of Lost Time, Volume VI: Time Regained, Page 524

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.