Like the five summers before it, the summer of 2019 will go into the record books as the hottest summer on record, and even at summer’s end in the Northern Hemisphere, large swaths of the United States are still engulfed in a heat that hasn’t abated in weeks. But even so, here in New England the feeling is unmistakable: summer is ending.
You can feel it in the air when you’re out on your morning’s first outing. In the garden, walking the dog, heading to work, the air carries that clear tang of shortening days and lowering temperatures. It seems impossible – as always, it feels like summer is packing up its glories and leaving us early – but soon enough crops will be coming in, apples will be picked, foliage will be turning, and the summer of 2019 will begin the quick fade into memory.
For well over a century, this change in season has also tended to betoken a change in our reading. Even though Americans work more days, more hours, and usually more jobs than people do in any other country, they still reflexively think of summer as an idle time, a season of beach reads and potboilers, of lounging around with the unchallenging books that have become our old-shoe best friends over the years.
The approach of autumn tends to trigger a baseline change in this kind of thinking. The days get shorter, the kids go back to school, college semesters commence, and gradually ambition starts to creep back into reading plans. Will this be the winter some big bookish project finally gets done?
There are some perennial suspects when it comes to such projects, of course, including the mother of them all, War and Peace , Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic about Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia and the many layers of Russian society that were torn apart by that invasion. The book is famous for its panoramic sweep and cast of hundreds (and, in some English-language translations, positively alarming glaciers of French), and it’s infamous for being a perpetually-unread landmark on the to-do list of readers everywhere. Those to-do lists tend to get shelved for the somnolent summer months, but when mornings start getting cooler, War and Peace tends to be one of the first things errant readers consider.
Another perennial back-to-school item is of course Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick , his tale of furiously obsessed Captain Ahab and his quest for the eponymous white whale that “dismasted” him on his previous voyage. Moby-Dick was for well over a century regarded as that semi-mythical beast, The Great American Novel, and many a reader has decided that once the days shorten they’ll put away the Dan Brown and the Michael Crichton and finally set sail on the Pequod .
One of the most daunting of these summer’s end titles is more a project than a book: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . Gibbon’s immense history of 1500 years of Roman history appeared in six volumes over the course of nearly 15 years in the 1780s, and for 200 years it’s been a great daunting Everest for readers. It’s been presented in many one-volume abridgements for the faint of heart over the years, but the purists dream every season of conquering all of its hundreds of thousands of words and all of its multi-lingual and bizarrely recondite footnotes.
There are other candidates, naturally. Tolstoy’s own Anna Karenina is always near the top of the list, as is James Joyce’s notoriously baffling Ulysses , and even Thomas Pynchon’s weird masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow . And the most important thing to keep in mind when surveying such a list is that sturdy old quote: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered.” The fact that these kinds of back-to-school books tend to be viewed as either challenges or chores by so many readers is a shame. It misses the point that literary brilliance is always its own justification.
In fact, War and Peace is totally engrossing, even in English. It’s true that Moby-Dick has enough undigested nautical exposition to make all but the stoutest landlubbers quake in their boots, but the human drama of obsession that runs throughout the book drives to a climax that will work on just about anybody. And The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , the toughest sell of them all, is a protracted ( very protracted) display of soaring rhetoric that has virtually no equals in the English language – and many of Gibbon’s historical summaries have held up surprisingly well since he wrote them.
These books, in other words, are well worth reading. Regardless of the season.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.