Aug 23, 2007

Summer Reading for Wintersian Classicists

Did you notice the recent June article in Time magazine about books that writers read during the summer, books that they consider, and most of us also will consider, "guilty pleasures." These are books that are not of high literary artistry or seriousness but are worthwhile for one reason or another. The article offers the guilty summertime reading pleasures of 16 published authors, some of whom enjoy a measure of esteem in the Mid- to High-Cult literary worlds, such as Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates. (A number of these authors, on the other hand, I do not recognize at all -- and many of their works seem to me to constitute "guilty pleasures" in themselves.) I think it's highly valuable for Wintersians and other modern classicists to talk about their own guilty pleasures, books, which people often read during the summer, that are not of the highest literary quality but are worth one's time and effort for some good reason. Some of these pleasures are simply for superior literary entertainment of one sort or another. I'd like to see readers of this blog tell us about their guilty pleasures.

You might be mildly interested in my own. Well, I would first say that there is little on my reading list that I feel the least guilty about -- nothing that I would consider the equivalent of fine chocolates, if that's the best way to think of literary guilty pleasures. With that said, let me go through a few books I've read this summer. I took in the sixth Harry Potter book at the beginning of this summer, and I don't feel guilty about it at all. Every one of the Potter books has told a good story, though I'll admit that I've kept up on the series mostly because my two boys, 14 and 11, love the books madly, as so many youngsters do. I haven't read the madly hyped final installment, though my older son has already read it four times since the day of the big release this summer. Harold Bloom and other critics have taken a few swipes at the Potter books in recent years, but I see no reason for Bloom or anyone else to get worked up in opposition to these engaging tales. They aren't great literature, hardly even literature, but every one of them has been a good read. I can't say that about every fantasy novel I've tried down the years. For example, some readers madly praised Stephen Donaldson's fantasy series from about 15 years ago, but I never got half way through the first novel among six. That I have found Harry Potter at least worth reading is enough for me. Brit Philip Pullman has been a favorite among the higher-brow critics lately, but I have found Pullman a bit strained.

I also read an autobiography of Earvin Magic Johnson early in the summer. I'm from southern Michigan, and Earvin was a big, big deal in these parts in his high school and college days. He played at a Lansing area high school, the region where I have lived for 25 years, and at Michigan State in college, where I have worked for the past 20 years. I also am a fan of college basketball in general. The ghost-written autobiography was rather simply written in a decidedly pedestrian style. But I learned a few things about Magic and enjoyed reading about his perspective on his life. The book was suprisingly a bit flat for such an ethusiastic man. Magic was much less fired-up about something the Michigan public found so amazing, his magical skills with a basketball, in those days when he was a "phenom" in high school. Further, I find it almost incomprehensible that he had doubts about himself. His ever widening public seemed to know his destiny long before he could recognize or believ in it. I might misremember the time of his high school magicalness, but I don't think so. He was the biggest athlete in Michigan then and ever since, by far. No one has ever even come close to the attention he received around here.

In addition, I have been absorbed by the "Roma Sub Rosa" historical fiction series by Steven Sailor. These "detective" novels are set in the time of Juluis Ceasar (I'm a buff of the history of the Roman Empire), and the main character is an upper-class fellow who has many high-level politcal connections and lives in Rome. This man, Gordianus the Finder, has a knack for solving murders, in a time when there were no detectives as such, and these murders usually have some importance to the knotted politics of the tumultuous times. I've been reading one of these books every summer for the past few years. I've found them all worth my time as guilty pleasures. They've taught me about some of the finer points of the history of the Roman Civil Wars, too.

Also, this summer I've been reading a fascinating book on rum-running on the Great Lakes, "Outlaws of the Lakes," which has certainly been eye-opening. It's not particularly well written, sticking mostly to the bare facts and relating them in an overheated tabloid style, but it tells many fascinating tales and gets the facts straight for the most part. I'm interested in the subject, first, because I'm a Great Lakes captain during the summers for the Kilpela family ferry business on Lake Superior; second, because I met a local in northern Michigan whose uncle was a rum-runner on Lake Superior back in the days of Prohibition; and, third, because I am fascinated with questions of crime, its causes and its cures -- and with literature's bearing on the causes and cures of evil. My interest in crime and evil, it might be wotth noting, is surely one of the reasons, among many, that I was first and remain attracted to the literary theory of Yvor Winters -- and that might be the most important point.

One guilty pleasure turned out not be all that pleasurable, Hemingway's "Nick Adams Stories," which I tried to pick up again after some 30 years (it's the second time I've tried to read them after first reading them in my college days). I found the writing, themes, and discernible purpose of these stories, which are famous in this area, since many are set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, to be nearly worthless. I quit after three stories and don't think I will return to them ever again.

There are other guilty literary pleasures in my life. To mention a few, I think of Elmore Leonard, the crime novelist, history books about the region I live in during the summer (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), the history of Christian theology, and the development of Christian beliefs and ideas. But I'd like to hear about the so-called guilty pleasures of readers of Winters, anyone who might be even mildly sympathetic to what he stood for as poet and critic.

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