It’s July! Or, as it is known in Denmark, the month where almost literally everybody is on vacation. The cities empty, the streets are quiet and shops, with the exception of ark books, are closed. This month we will be tackling all things leisurely and bookish, with as much patience, time and space as this requires. We hope you will follow along, at your own leisurely pace. It’s summer after all. Starting with this list of books to read for leisure.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
“There was a certain pathos in the indecision of the guards, guards who spend much of their lives in front of timeless paintings but are only ever asked what time is it, when does the museum close, dónde esta el baño.”
Despite my functionally monoglot status, English had never really been a language that I had associated with beauty. Practical elegance maybe or witty flexibility but beauty has always seemed to belong to another category. This was before I read Ben Lerner’s first novel “Leaving the Atocha Station”.
The story is simple enough to understand; you follow along inside the head of Adam, a young American poet in Spain on a scholarship to write a long-form historical poem about the Spanish civil war. His only problems are his striking ignorance of both the language and culture, his various chemical dependencies, his tendency to lie frivolously, his tendency to fall madly in love incredibly quickly and the crippling self doubt that comes when one has been granted money to do a specific thing. As problems go, these may seem insufferable but rest assured: this is a funny book.
Aside from the travelogue appeal of stories of displaced anglophones, Lerner’s command of language is such that it is not simply that his writing is inventive but it is so clear and open that you will encounter literally no resistance on a first read. Here, your leisure is assured by reading someone who knows what he is doing. One playful element that i particularly enjoyed were the passages in which Adam tries to interpret statements said to him in Spanish with his limited language skills. When talking with Teresa, a young woman he finds terrifyingly compelling, Adam can only discern the following:
“[Her] father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole, although here I was basically guessing; all I knew was that painting was mentioned with some bitterness and regret.”
There are some who may think that Lerner’s work is a little too much of The New Yorker. However, when such a style is deployed to the standard it is here, it is no longer a question of forgive it this decadence but simply marveling in it. And, if summer is not the time for a little leisurely decadence, then when is?
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
“What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Rob is 35 year old record-shop owner/man-child, he has bright mind, but dropped out of university, now spending most of his time making top 5 lists with his friends/employees/the-only-guys-as-obsessed-with-pop-trivia-and-minutiae-as-Rob, Dick and Barry. When we meet Rob, his long-time girlfriend Laura has just left him for another man. His instinctual reaction is to make a list of “desert island, all time, top five most memorable split-ups.” Laura does not make the list, Rob has been broken up with so many times, it can’t wound him badly anymore, or so he tells himself. He decides to reconnect with the women on the list, looking for answers, wondering whether “it is possible to maintain a relationship and a large record collection simultaneously.”
High Fidelity is a leisure read. On the one hand, it’s pure dick-lit, (chick-lit for men). Filled with manly banter and pop-culture references it’s an easy and fun read. Comfort food for the mind. Like hanging out with your friends at the bar, having the same conversation about nothing and everything, High Fidelity is a book that one reads and reads again, mirroring oneself in different aspects of Rob’s brilliance and failures each time.
On the other hand, it’s also about leisure. Rob has managed to construct his life in such a way that it’s all leisure. He has turned his hobby/obsession with old pop-records into his occupation, he: “got to adolescence and just stopped dead.” Time is wasted at the pubs, and record shop, nothing happening, no one moving on. Leisure can stunt one’s growth. Leisure is dangerous.
Virginia Woolf’s essays
Every summer, I return to Virginia Woolf’s inspiring, beautiful essays. Despite Woolf’s tragic end, these essays make me want to live life to the fullest. As she writes in A Room of One’s Own, she offers ”an opinion upon one minor point”, and does so in each essay with so much detail and focus that her perspectives on the world are easily understood and can easily inspire. This makes them ideal for lazy summer reading.
Other than A Room of One’s Own I will recommend the essays How Should One Read a Book? and Street Haunting: A London Adventure.
In How Should One Read a Book? Woolf puts her reader in a reading-room – a room dedicated only to reading. She puts this room to life, describing the sounds, the smell and temperature. With numerous possible books to commence reading, Woolf answers her own question: ”What am I to do to get the utmost possible pleasure out of them?” by saying that ”that pleasure – mysterious, unknown, useless as it is – is enough.”
Street Haunting might serve as inspiration to what you can do after having finished your chosen summer read. In Street Haunting, Woolf urges her readers to ”shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room”. Just perfect, after having been weaved into Ben Lerner’s Madrid or Nick Hornby’s London.
I would like to recommend that you use, perhaps, just one of the above mentioned as warm up to all other summer reads. I promise you, Woolf will sharpen your reading, while relaxing you in a way only she can do.
The Snowdrop Festival by Bohumil Hrabal
The Snowdrop Festival, a collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, is my must read every summer. The collection of bitter-sweet anecdotes from the small town of Kersko hosts a parade of one-of-a-kind characters such as Leli, ‘a good kind of guy, would do anything for his friends, did not even have time to marry, such a good friend he was‘ or a notary who breeds rabbits in an old piano and introduces himself as ‘the deceased who forgot to die‘.
Hrabal, the Czech Epicurus, puts the life of the local community at the centre of his light and unpretentious narrative. The process of writing, as he claims in the postscript, took place in the breaks between chopping firewood and mowing the lawn of his summer house garden. The result are stories too ludicrous to be anything but (almost) real—an homage to simply being alive.
Hrabal is a great observer, trying to capture the nature of life, both its small wonders and its hardships. His abstract sense of humour, love of farce and absurdity make The Snowdrop Festival a true leisure read. The sun-soaked pages are a praise of collective living and simple pleasures without being mawkish or banal. The message Hrabal seems to be conveying is that, by living lightly, one can accidentally understand things of great importance. And since ‘every pub in the world is a herd of deer intertwined with antlers of their conversation‘, it seems to me that he wants the readers to call their friends, open a cold beer and celebrate the summer.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
When time finally seems to stretch through the days elastically, when you wake up not knowing what day of the week it is, when the sun gives your eyelids a reddish glow – then it is time to delve into those slow, quiet books that your busy everyday life never allows you to savor the flavor of.
One of my favorite of such books is Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author Per Petterson. The book is told from the point of view of the aging, disgruntled, male protagonist who (like all aging, disgruntled Norwegian men, it seems) has moved out into the woods so as not to be bothered with civilization and other people. From his little hut between the trees, he reflects on fateful childhood summer whose events still silently but doggedly shape his life.
Out Stealing Horses is a book to be felt rather than understood, which is why it is important to read it with patience and time. Petterson’s language surrounds you with the languid summer breeze, the dusty pine forest and the light nights of the Norwegian fjords. From the eyes of the budding child, you experience innocence shed away in a hazy summer that seems never to end. From the eyes of the aging man, you feel the cold and regret of a harsh winter setting in.
It is a beautiful book, and one that made me think and feel long after I had turned the last page. I hope it will accompany you into a hazy, but perhaps slightly less fateful, summer.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The best summer nights of my childhood would be spent curled up in the corner of the bed, illicitly reading until the morning birds begin to chirp in unison with my stomach. Frightened, as I used to be by any suspicious sound or movement around me, I would keep my back to the wall and peer across the room and all the otherworldly, dark matter in it. At the same time, throats would be cut in my bedtime reads and terrible bloody mysteries solved by cunning detectives would finally be revealed as mere manifestations of envy or other human foibles, and not ghosts after all.
Little has changed, I still quicken my pace in dark hallways and wholeheartedly enjoy a good murder narrative. Classic detective stories are leisure-friendly indeed, with their plots that are comparatively easy to follow but brain-tickling enough to induce the feeling of having grown smarter. This is what makes The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco work so well. It is not only a thrilling detective novel but also a fantastic example of intertextuality, a historical interpretation of the Middle Ages, and a meditation on reading in general.
The story is set in a remote Italian monastery in 1327, where a young novice, Adso, accompanies a Sherlock-like English Franciscan, William, in solving a row of mysterious crimes among the monks. This is a world before Gutenberg, where every single book is one of a kind. A world where precious manuscripts contain knowledge worth dying (and killing) for. Borges has imagined “paradise as a kind of library”. Well, the library of The Name of the Rose is only as heavenly as it is diabolic.
A perfect leisure read for an aspiring librarian, crime investigator, or monk on a hot (nb!) summer day. If it‘s raining like crazy, make somebody fetch you another blanket because you might find yourself shivering of terror and excitement as if in a cold cell of a medieval monastery. Have a notebook at hand too, for all the marvellous insights on the nature of love, faith and books, as they scream to be scribbled down.
– Auksė Beatričė Katarskytė
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I remember walking around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, slightly drunk on local craft beer, enjoying my first pack of cigarettes after quitting smoking a month before. I was a new graduate, alone, happy, 23-year-old then sitting in the harbour of Philadelphia looking at the other side of the river. Over to Camden, New Jersey, where Patti Smith worked just before moving to New York.
Like Patti, I remember falling in love with this photographer. He doesn’t have dark hair and he doesn’t live in New York, but I have wanted to believe that ever since the first moment we met and we both liked each other a lot and we would look at each other’s eyes while talking, even though I don’t look at people’s eyes when I feel so shy. For a short time we lived in the same city, just like Patti and Robert. I would sometimes leave to go to the bookstore. We would play new music to each other, and we would take silly pictures and videos of each other with our phones.
Just Kids is the memoir of someone whom some of us will find great in some spheres of her life and mediocre in others. Some will only see the greater part of her, and some others only the mediocrity in her. But after all it’s just a plain, yet interesting, account of events of someone who has had a somehow different, yet perhaps not so different, life than most of us.
As a memoir, there’s not much to reflect on: no dramatic turn of events, nothing extremely shocking that you wouldn’t expect of some rock star from the 70’s had experienced. And even though I would say Patti Smith is a greater song writer than a writer per se, her prose is just so cozy—easy to follow and beautiful in its simplicity.
What I think makes this piece distinguishable from other I’m-a-star-I-had-a-crazy-life-look-at-me memoir is that she reaches a real level of sincerity when talking about love. Yes, there are points when you can tell she’s just explaining to you how amazing her life is, but there’s always this level of sincerity towards her ever transforming love towards Robert Mapplethorpe that is universal. This makes her words transcend her story and creates space for a deeper kind of empathy.
This is not a life changing book. It is a nice book, though. That kind of book you probably want to read in summer. A book that you can easily consume and that you won’t get lost in if you skim one page. Nor if you pick it up a week after you left it. It won’t pose any extra effort to read it in one go either. If you’re traveling around the East Coast of the USA, it will definitely add a different perspective to your experience. And it will definitely make you want to listen to more music, which is always a quite nice, and leisurely thing to do.