MAXWELL:  Not-so-light summer reading

5/18/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Each summer, I compile a reading list for myself. I include a combination of at least 20 books, poems and plays. Each is a work I have read and enjoyed or have learned from immensely. I started this practice during my sophomore year in college. This year, one of my former students in Chicago, now an English teacher in a public school, suggested that I share my 2003 list with my readers. I thought it was a good idea. Below are a few of my choices:

The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine. I will be reading this 18th century masterpiece for the fifth time. It remains a controversial treatise that expounds the deistic view of revealed religion. At the time, it was denounced as atheistic and immoral.

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. I first read this fine work as a senior in high school. This work shocked me. It remains the best, most honest antiwar novel I have read. Depicting World War I, it stands as a grand statement of the futility and horror of war.

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre. This 1934 book discovered me as a junior in college. This is my seventh time reading it. Why? It changed my intellectual life. A long philosophical treatise, subtitled “an essay on phenomenological ontology,” it attempted to systematize Sartre’s theoretical analysis of the human condition and human consciousness, which underpins existentialism. For humanity, Sartre argued, existence precedes essence. In a world without God or meaning, the individual has infinite potentialities in shaping his or her life. These notions gave me a new look at myself and life itself.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. I read this novel for the first time as a junior in high school, and I have read it every year since. Simply put, I love Holden Caulfield. The novel tells the story of two days in the life of Holden, who has run away from his prep school just before Christmas vacation. At first refusing to go home, he ambles around New York, encountering humorous adventures. The sophistication and articulateness of Holden’s off-center world view encapsulate contemporary youth’s rejection of adult society.

The Country Wife, William Wycherley. Written in 1675, this comedic play depicts cuckoldom in London’s fashionable society. Bawdiness and clever repartee make the play delightful. I read it in high school, and it sparked my lifelong love of Restoration comedy, which I studied in graduate school.

Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold. I read this 1867 poem for the first time as a college freshman. It captivated me and taught me that I was an incurable romantic. It expresses Arnold’s pessimism with regard to the future of the modern world. In the poem, Arnold advocated personal fidelity and love as the substitute for the ebbing “sea of faith.” This is my favorite stanza: “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another! For the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/And we are here on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” It could have been written today.

The Stranger, Albert Camus. At Wiley College, as a freshman, I learned to love this 1942 novel. I have read it every year since 1963. It depicts the absurd as the condition of man, who considers himself a stranger in his world. Meursault, the protagonist, will not “play the game.” He refuses to tell the conventional white lies asked of him or voice belief in human love or religious faith. In the end, just before his execution for having killed an Arab, he discovers a passion for the simple fact of life itself.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. This 1926 novel is one of America’s best ever in my estimation. I cannot count the number of times I have read this simply told yarn about the Lost Generation of Americans who had fought in France during WWI, who had expatriated themselves from the United States. I am still impressed that at the end of the story, nothing has substantially changed for any of the characters. For these disillusioned people, life had no direction. They could not grow out of their imprisonment.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. My English teacher assigned this 1952 novel to my 12th grade class. We loved it immediately. This engrossing tale is about a nameless African-American man’s quest for his own identity in a society that is hostile to his very existence. I knew after reading this book that I would study writing.

The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot. In five parts, this 1922 poem explores the various psychic stages of a man in despair, seeking redemption. The waste land _ spiritual drought _ is contrasted with images of regeneration and fertility rituals and Eastern and Christian practices. I have read it countless times.

The works on my list are not meant for the beach or the rowdy bar. Each requires a lot of quiet time and quiet places. Summer, filled with lazy days, is the best time to enjoy and absorb these works.