Summer Reading

In an attempt to console his love/hate relationship with author Nick Hornby, pseudo-intellectual Kevin Nguyen scrutinizes his summer wrapped up in books.

Nick Hornby writes a monthly column in The Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” In it, he opens with list of books he’s bought and read before making general statements about how books affect his life or culture in general. The column tends to meander, jumping from title to title with little cohesion between subject matter. Still, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is engaging if:

  1. You constantly feel guilty that you don’t read more.
  2. You’re an English major.
  3. You have a tendency to reference literary figures when you’re drunk. (You’ll know I’m wasted when I bring up Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

If Nick Hornby can write about reading, why can’t I? [Maybe because you’re not a world famous author? Ed.]


The library is a vastly under-appreciated resource. I can’t speak to the strength of library systems in other states, but I imagine that you’d be able to find the majority of your reading list at the local bibliotheque. Even new releases are a breeze to find. I borrowed Miranda July’s short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, and Haruki Murakami’s After Dark within two weeks of their release earlier this summer. Most library systems even have a snappy online interface that allows you to reserve books from the comfort of your home. They’ll even transfer books you request from other libraries in the state, so you can pick up all your reading at the most convenient location. Really, there’s no reason that we should be buying books.

Still, the Association of American Publishers reports $24.2 billion of net sales in 2006. Though I’ve become well acquainted with my local library, and I still find myself spending a sizable chunk of my paycheck at Barnes and Noble.

Books

Books are like trophies. With the time commitment involved with reading, I think people like proof of their personal investment. Of course, a book will sit on your shelf regardless of whether or not you’ve read it. Perhaps its our desire to appear well-read. Few people will admit to never reading – even if their most recent foray into literature was the first 100 pages of The Da Vinci Code. Your personal library is like a mark of education, and in an age where everyone considers themselves an intellectual, its natural to want to dress our shelves appropriately.

I may be the greatest offender of this. This summer, all the books I’ve read are stacked on my night-stand, as if I might wake up in the middle of the night and need to find a passage from Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. And it’s not like I need to own books to re-read them. The only repeat this summer was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Granted, I think I’ve read quite a bit. As August draws to a close, I’ve clocked in at 34 books since summer began. That’s just over two books a week, which is a pretty solid reading rate.

The key to keeping up with your reading list is to be consistent. I commuted into Boston for work, which gave me a nice hour and a half of dedicated reading time inbound and outbound, five days a week. I never read much when I wasn’t on the train, so if you don’t have a huge block of otherwise worthless time every day you might need to clear your schedule.

It’s also interesting to see what other folks on the train are reading. This summer, there were two novels that popped up frequently. The first was Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize winner, The Road. With its recent release into paperback wearing the badge of Oprah’s Book Club, I don’t think I went a day in June without seeing it appear at least once in the hands of a someone on the train or subway. Even then, I’m surprised by its success. McCarthy’s sparse, often abstract language isn’t the most accessible commuter rail reading, and the story line would probably remind most readers of Mad Max or Kevin Costner’s film adaptation of The Postman. Perhaps the novel’s quality was enough to usher its prominence. Oprah might occasionally go off the deep end, but the lady sure knows how to pick ‘em.

The summer’s second novel was more obviously J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series. The Monday following its release, I swear there were more folks with Hallows on hardcover than iPods.

Okay, I haven’t read it. Fans of Harry Potter seem to think that if you haven’t read the books already, you must have some adversity to the series. Personally, I just never found the time to read the six previous installments, and now that the speculation on the series’ conclusion is over, I have little motivation to ever pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Much of the series’ appeal came from its potential for discussion. It’s like watching Lost; hypothesizing about the ending is half the fun.

Other than The Road and Harry Potter, I rarely observed interesting selections in the hands of fellow commuters. Roughly 80% of readers were middle-aged women, which would explain the popularity of harlequin romance novels and Jodi Picoult books. The one exception I saw was a hip-looking girl reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What, with a copy of Nicole Krauss’s brilliant The History of Love tucked in her tote bag. I momentarily fell in love with her, in ways that only an English major could. She could’ve been a barista in the café of my heart.

Conversely, people only took notice of what I was reading on a couple occasions. The first was a Mormon who caught me with a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. The second was a girl who asked me if I was enjoying High Fidelity.

“Well, I think Nick Hornby is a little overrated.”

She’d never heard of Nick Hornby.

“It’s the basis for the film of the same name.”

She’d never heard of High Fidelity.

“It has John Cusack.”

She’d never heard of John Cusack.

Who was this girl? One obligatory conversation later, she would convince me to give her my phone number so we could go roller-skating sometime. I made the mistake of giving my real number, as she would leave me several abrasive voicemail messages throughout the week. Apparently the absence of John Cusack in one’s life leads to aggressive behavior.

So in the end, nobody really cares about what or how much you read. Maybe the notion of being well-read is just another narcissistic prerequisite for so-called intellectuals. I think that if I spent my time reading The New York Times and The Guardian from front to back every day instead of David Sedaris essays, I’d probably be a much smarter individual. The only reward from postmodern fiction is an air of smugness. And is that really worth all the time spent pouring over literature?

Well, I still think I’m better than Nick Hornby. That’s enough to make it worth it.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.