The Novelty of Fiction and Summertime Reading

There’s a sound that summer makes—hot off the tongue and quick to burn in untamed light. Sometimes it’s sinful like flesh singing on a hot grill, the slow sigh of a beer can’s remorse, or the cries from nighttime’s children as they chase the day’s foregone conclusion. Other times it’s languid—the quiet lap of water—a sensation that gives way to melting, more than anything. Time drools and promises that days may never end.

I’ve been thinking about summer reading lately, as my reading habits have differed significantly since last year. Perhaps all of ours have. Digital media and television have refashioned the way that we consume fiction. Since the onset of Tony Soprano’s panic attack in 1999, the "golden age of television" has been vying for the same time and attention we used to parcel out for reading novels. How could you be convinced to spend a few hours annotating Infinite Jest when you could indulge in some absorbing diversion on Netflix without ever turning a page?[a]

Do not mistake me, if it were released tomorrow I would watch five more seasons of Mad Men in five days in the kind of hazy stupor that only Don Draper knows how to wake from. I am a unrepentant fan of television and the masterful shows of recent years that unfold like novels and tell stories with the character development, nuance and restraint of great literary voices. What David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan have done for television is entertaining and critically lauded—reminiscent of the serialized Charles Dickens novels of the Victorian era.[b] It’s not a stretch to imagine people being as equally invested in the weekly adventure and overall fate of Oliver Twist as they were in Jesse Pinkman.

It’s easy to get enraptured, to follow the ineffable joy of becoming engulfed in the pace of plots dosed out like morphine. But here’s what’s strange about watching fiction on television: when I consume a show I am a visitor in someone else’s fully realized vision—asked to make assumptions, connect with fully drawn characters and often suspend belief—but I am not asked to imagine, create or decide; that work has already been done for me. Language has taken shape as either action or dialogue, characters are cast as discernible faces, and visual perceptions are arranged inside frames and parceled out for consumption by episode.

Do not mistake me, I’d love to tell you what makes Rectify and Mr. Robot so great this season. But for now, I’ll read a few chapters of a novel and hope that we don’t lose the seduction of reading language on the page. Perhaps reading a novel is like summer itself—tangible and carnal, demanding all of your capacity for attention at once, promising newness. It will take time. It will take imagination. It will eat at you if you’ve done it right. It will leave you hungry.

In the spirit of summer’s heady dance with the indefinite, I’ve suggested some reads that pair well with lakes, cabins, pools, beverages, beaches, airplanes, fields and whatever other weapon or vessel you have in mind. But don't call these beach reads; though they are as entertaining as television (gasp) and do not require spark notes (mostly), they are intelligent, imaginative, and persistent in their quest to uphold language and storytelling.[c] 

Featured Summer Read: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

There’s a sound I think of when I think of The Art of Fielding; a wooden snap that bobs in my memory like I’m eighteen and covered in grass stains that only youth could ever make last. I read this novel like a coed at play, never thinking about the consequences of time. There were moments so familiar, or seemingly so, that I wanted to live inside them. Part nostalgic, sometimes precious, but always firmly rooted in psychological realism—it speaks about sports, race, sexuality and identity in a way that is both old-world and fashionable.

Current Summer Read: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I’m reading this with a friend—together, but apart. Perhaps we’ll talk about it occasionally. Perhaps we won’t; but we’ll know that we’re reading the same thing at the same time. And, together, we’ll have two very different experiences because we are two minds apart, and that is a most intoxicating thing. Join us, if you'd like. 

Suggested Summertime Reads:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Footnotes:

[a] Those masterful fools don’t even let you press the “next episode” button yourself.

[b] Many comparisons have already been made between Dickens and television shows like The Wire (David Simon)—both imagined in the serial form, but enduring as the popular "fiction" of their time. 

[c] The ironic thing to be noted here is that many of these would make a perfect miniseries, or have already been considered for one by writers and networks alike. See: HBO Passes on The Corrections Pilot, Really Terrible Internet Casting Ideas for The Art of Fielding.