When I was 6 years old, I entered the first grade at Boonville Elementary School. For months, various adults had told me I would learn to read in school, and I marched into that old brick schoolhouse eager to acquire this skill. My memory of my return home from that day in school is vivid: I got out of the car, looked at my mother, blurted “They didn’t teach me to read,” and stomped into the house.
The story goes that as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the final session of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied: “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”
In Lauren Grodstein’s novel The Explanation For Everything (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013, 336 pages, $24.95), we meet Andrew Waite, a biology professor and widower living with his two young daughters in Southern New Jersey. Andrew is an evolutionist, an atheist who at the same time is haunted from time to time by his recently deceased wife, Louisa. He is a good father and a provocative teacher, but along with his wife has lost the power to connect with others. He spends a part of each day writing angry, unsent letters to the young man, now imprisoned, who killed Louisa while driving drunk.
This week it’s time to break out the champagne, pop that cork, and raise a flute of bubbly to the essay.
Once the property of magazines and newspapers, the essay is now the vehicle of choice for thousands of online bloggers. Everyday we can go to our computers and pull up essays on every topic imaginable. Anyone can create a blog, and the essay, usually short and focused, is the ideal form for posting thoughts and opinions on that blog. Name a topic — household budgets, the novels of John Gardner, black bears, guitars, love, Ebola — and you’ll find amateur essayists sharing their observations online.
Twenty-five years ago, while under a good deal of pressure and stress, I began noticing I was forgetting things. I would tell a customer in my bookstore about a novel and then found I couldn’t dredge up the name of the author. I grew concerned enough to ask informal advice from a local physician, who suggested ginkgo biloba. (This didn’t work: I kept forgetting to take the pills).
“Evil is no more at an end than History, and so long as there are men there will be no final victory over it.”
Regarding politics and language, George Orwell once wrote that modern speech and writing are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Read nearly any government report, peruse the writings of many economists, examine the politically correct vocabulary of universities and institutions, decipher the lingo of corporate bureaucrats, and we see that Orwell was right on target.
For many reasons, this summer in particular afforded many opportunities for reading. During a 60-hour stay at Figure Eight Island, for example, I finished a novel and a book of essays, mostly because my hosts wanted to do nothing more than cook excellent meals, sprawl on the sand, and read books. As a result, my pile of books for possible review sprinted ahead of my ability to write of them.
In Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the practice of student reviews of a teacher, then writes: “As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike? Part two: what flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least they compelled the students to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered.”
Not so long ago, a neighbor in the building where I love in Montford, a budding comedian in her early 30s who works as a publicist for the Mast General Stores, was visiting with me in my apartment. We are both readers and began joking about bookstores and genres of literature. I mentioned a book that I categorized as “chick-lit,” and my friend, who disliked this particular book, replied that it should be labeled “s**t-lit.”
For whatever reason — the leisurely pace of days, the break in my work routine, the annual trip to the coast with my children and grandchildren — summer alters my reading habits. As for the students I teach, summer affords me the opportunity to read as I wish, to browse with less intent through bookstores or library stacks. Here are a few of the books that have passed through my hands these last two weeks.