Imperial Vollmann, Populist Beach Reading, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

A few odds and ends (and perhaps a bit of ranting):


Read this fascinating profile of William Vollmann from this week’s New York Times. It makes me wish I had nothing to do but read everything this maniac writes. Vollmann’s new book Imperial comes out today from Viking. You can read an excerpt here.

Not really surprisingly, Vollmann did not make NPR‘s reader poll for the 100 Best Beach Books Ever. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped a list that pretty much consists of a bunch of drivel (Twilight, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), drivel posing as non-drivel (The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler’s Wife), overrated “classics,” (To Kill A Mockingbird), and a few surprises (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a fantastic book, but is it really best enjoyed on a sunny beach?)


This one didn’t make the beach reading list either. For a few years now, selections from The Classic Slave Narratives have been required reading in my high school classroom. I usually emphasize sections from Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, two masterful writers whose complex syntax and diction can be stunning, if not overwhelming, to the average AP student. I think that these narratives speak to why writing matters, and, importantly in today’s idiocracy, why reading matters as well. These first-person accounts of the horrors of slavery need to be read, and editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. does a great job of setting the stage in his remarkable introduction to the collection. It’s sad, intellectually tragic, really, that Gates’s recent arrest should be given so much credit for sparking a “debate” or “teachable moment” about race, when Gates’s own scholarship makes the rootedness of racial tension in this country so plain. When a demagogue like Glenn Beck calls President Obama a “racist,” or a big fat idiot like Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama simply has a “chip on his shoulder” because he’s black, we can see precisely why the first-person narratives of Equiano, Douglass, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs are so important. These dangerous lunatics repeatedly suggest on their shows that America needs to keep its “traditions,” that our “history” is a strength, and that somehow the past was a place of better values. Perhaps if they read something outside of the dominant narrative they’d understand why someone might want to reappraise historically traditional values (and also, why someone might have a chip on his shoulder). But I’ve digressed from my main point: The Classic Slave Narratives is a valuable and important collection, and the stories collected here are a real entry point for any genuine discussion on race.

Summer Reading List: Primer–Beach Reading and School Reading

The end of the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, and with it, summer reading. This week Biblioklept will offer up some swell reading suggestions that will both entertain you and make you a better human being (seriously). In advance of that, let’s start with a silly question: just what is “summer reading” and how is it different–or is it different–than any other type of reading?

We’ll divide summer reading into two distinct camps: there’s elective summer reading, which we will henceforth call beach reading (no beach need be involved, as we will soon see), and then there’s the summer reading forced upon young people, henceforth known as the mandatory summer reading list. Let’s look at mandatory reading first, and then quickly dismiss it.

The lists. Oh the lists. We imagine most of our audience has been through the whole mandatory summer reading drill: schlepping around Barnes & Noble (or B. Dalton, back in the day), diligent Mom with said list clutched in hand, the embarrassment of the whole thing summed up in the piles of A Raisin in the Sun and A Separate Peace displayed in the aisles, the sullen look of an emerging sophomore gripping various honeybee-colored editions of Cliff’s Notes, the indignant cries of younger siblings, also forced to read, your never-read copy of My Side of the Mountain foisted upon them. The list seems impossible: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? The Aeneid? Tess of the D’Ubervilles? Christ on crutches! Almost everything else in the bookstore seems doubly alluring by comparison. We want to read what we want to read, not what you tell us we want to read

This isn’t to suggest that a codified summer reading list should be done away with, of course. Summer reading helps to keep young people’s minds engaged during a time when they’d otherwise, let’s face it, consume naught but the cotton candy fare of Grand Theft Auto and Flavor of Love. Without the rigors of summer reading, students would return to school in the fall with their mind-muscled atrophied, puny, impotent. Still, having someone mandate what you should read is never fun. We had to go back years later, on our own, to appreciate much of what was forced upon us in youth.

That said, summer is a fine time to go back to those very lists. Just because you didn’t “get” Don Quixote when you were fifteen (and really, why would you have?) doesn’t mean that you won’t find it hilarious now that you’re older and your frames of reference have so greatly expanded. Ditto Moby-Dick, The Turn of the Screw, Walden, et al. There’s no rule that what we are calling here “beach reads” have to be light and fluffy. Still.

Ideas of just what constitutes beach reading, are, of course varied. But for many of us, beach reading implies a book that we can read on the beach or by the pool or swaying in a hammock in our backyard. Beach reading is a book that we can still follow after three beers on the porch. Beach reading can be trashy and lurid; beach reading can be literary junk food. Beach reading is genre fiction in cheap mass produced paperbacks, the kind of books we’re happy to leave at the condo when we’re through with them. Someone else will find them, digest them along with a blender of margaritas. At the same time, for a lot of us beach reading is the time to play catch up with all those books that have been stacking up in the margins of our homes, neglected, unread. In any case, summer is a time that many of us put renewed energies into pursuing the endangered pastime of reading, and over the next week Biblioklept aims to aid the cause.