July 6, 2015

The anxiety of the summer reading list


via Shutterstock

via Shutterstock

Ken Kalfus, the author of, among other things, the funniest novel ever written about 9/11 and the best short story ever written about an IMF official, recently published a piece on the New Yorker’s website about his increasingly complicated, anxious, and guilt-ridden relationship with bookstores. Bookstores were once “ordinary retail establishments,” Kalfus writes, but now “buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”

I found Kalfus’s piece funny and provocative—though not wholly persuasive—and I’d like to return to it in a future post. For now, I’ll simply thank him for demonstrating that anxiety will inevitably find its way into every aspect of book consumption.

Surely you’ve experienced the shame of being told that you’re reading the wrong things—that you should be reading something better. And even if you’re reading the right things, you may not be reading them with the appropriate degree of urgency or in the correct order. (In the New York Times Book Review’s weekly “By the Book” feature, writers are asked “What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?”; most of them respond with requisite self-flagellation.) And as we’ve seen, even the decision about where to buy that book you really should have read by now is not outside the realm of anxiety.

This is how I feel about summer reading lists. You wouldn’t think that there could be anything destabilizing about a list of books that someone might choose to read during the laziest season of the year. Yet you would be wrong.

Take the New Yorker’s contribution to the genre, which is suitably New Yorker-y. A newly translated novel by an Egyptian-Israeli writer? A beach read! Emerson? Perfect for a late August barbecue. And a book about Anders Breivik is the kind of thing anyone would bring along on a Nick Drake-soundtracked ride through a summer night in a Volkswagen convertible.

But maybe the New Yorker’s list isn’t representative. Let’s look at a more egalitarian publication: BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed’s list includes a novel about “a young woman named Josephine, who, after a lengthy unemployment, [enters] numbers into something called ‘The Database.’” And a novel that’s “very much like a flood itself—devastating and brutal yet beautiful.” And a “moving collection of stories about the men and women uprooted by the Filipino diaspora.”

I’m sure that all of these are worthy and accomplished books (BuzzFeed’s list also includes The Ghost Network and two books forthcoming from Melville House UK, so you know it can be trusted), but they’re so serious! Anyone who longs to read something trashier—or even just lighter—is bound to feel inadequate. (Gawker’s list is also very good, though it, too, follows a similar template.)

Which is not to say that the BuzzFeed and New Yorker lists are anything but well-intentioned and welcome: they are! They offer an essential counterpoint to the vapidity and cynicism of most summer readings lists, which tend to assume—for no good reason—that summer reading equals stupid reading. (Slate’s Katy Waldman had a smart piece on this very topic.) Yet I can’t be the only one who, upon encountering such lists, feels a degree of dissatisfaction with myself. Here we are at the beginning of July, and these writers have already made such enlightened choices about their summer reading! Anything I embark on is bound to seem inferior or inadequate by comparison.

Is it the form itself that produces anxiety? Unlike book reviews, which, even at their most erudite, provide a public service (they must convey to the reader something about the book under review), the summer reading list is really nothing more than an assertion: here’s what I’m reading, or have already read, or am planning to read, and you should read it. What is intended as a set of recommendations becomes a demonstration of one’s habits—a more sophisticated version of #amreading.

The tonal gap between the summer reading list and the year-end best-of is instructive. British newspapers are particularly good at collecting writers’ favorite books of the year, and I always pore through these collections with great curiosity. Where else would I find out about a book “on the changing protocols of smiling in 18th-century France” (recommended by Mary Beard) or an “exploration of Britain’s moorland” (recommended by Stuart Evers)? Each writer’s contribution is really a review in miniature, and a reader’s sense of obligation isn’t any more pronounced than it would be if the recommendation were published in March or October. Summer lists, on the other hand, provoke a sense of failure—if I don’t read a biography of Alma Mahler before September hits, I will have wasted my time.

Is it summer’s fault? Do the warmer months produce an especially acute form of #fomo? It might be that the distant memories of childhood summer reading still hold sway. To read two or three required books really wasn’t much of a burden, yet I don’t think I ever did the required summer reading until a week or two before school started up for the new year. Perhaps the guilt that accompanied me from June to August never really went away, even though mandatory reading assignments did. Somehow I was never one of those kids who participated avidly in local library summer reading contests, at the end of which ice cream or stickers were awarded.

If my anxiety over summer readings lists has grown, it’s in part because the lists themselves have proliferated wildly. Any website with a literary bent must bow to the gods of content and offer its own set of selections—if it fails to do so, it risks irrelevance. And as these lists are easier to commission and compile than proper book reviews, their number will only increase. I, meanwhile, will continue to feel under assault, even if these days I can cheat and reward myself with an ice cream cone anytime I want.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.