In a column last week about my summer reading list, I mentioned only three books: “Where the Crawdads Sing,” Delia Owens’ bestselling novel; “Autumn Light,” Pico Iyer’s latest memoir; and “Everything in Its Place,” the late medical writer Oliver Sacks’ posthumous collection of essays.
It’s a smaller list than the one I usually come up with — maybe because in middle age, I’m beginning to grasp my limitations.
In summer, we never read as much as we think we will, although dreaming big is part of the season’s charm. Or so Joseph Luzzi argues in “The Great Summer Read,” his recent online essay in The American Scholar. When summer ends, he writes, our best-laid plans to tackle a mountain of summer reading will make us wonder just what we were thinking when the season started. By early August, he tells readers, “our literary dreams of late May might, in retrospect, seem like what invading Russia might have looked like to Napoleon: a good idea at the time but ultimately a crushing overreach."
Why do we lie to ourselves every summer about how much we think we can read? Maybe in making an endless summer reading list, Luzzi suggests, we can reconnect with that old childhood fantasy about summer itself being endless.
“Sometimes,” Luzzi adds, “we’re even pulled in by books that we know we will not, cannot, finish. What might seem like an overreach or a pipe dream, a doomed attempt to tackle a mighty tome, may be our opening up of ourselves to something new and mysterious, a journey that will spill over from one summer to the next.”
I know what he’s talking about. For more summers than I can easily count, I’ve pulled from the shelf “West With the Night,” Beryl Markham’s 1942 memoir of her time as a pilot in Africa. I suspect it’s good, though I’ve never finished it. That has little to do with the book’s possible quality and is really more about the way my summertime brain resists being leashed to the project in front of me.
Every summer, at around the third chapter of Markham’s book, something nudges my attention elsewhere — another paperback, a stack of unread magazines, a Netflix series or the hundred less pleasant urgencies of what we call real life. Markham goes quiet for another summer — eventually returned to the shelf until the book reopens, like some tropical flower, next June.
Maybe it’s not important that I ever finish “West with the Night.” Perhaps the possibility of it is enough, a promise that points me hopefully to summers yet to come.
All of this came to mind a couple of Sundays ago as I sat on the couch with Markham’s book in my lap and tried to tackle it again. She was about to clear the runway, I think, when I closed my eyes and fell asleep.