Dispatches | August 23, 2011

Last month, after four days in Boston and an unremarkable flight from Logan International down to North Carolina before hopping a flight to St. Louis, I ended up delayed at Raleigh-Durham International. First, the airplane was late arriving from Cincinnati. Then, one of the tires on the plane was damaged. I actually had the “Wait, changing a tire is really easy!” thought, as if 747s and my Civic require the same amount of time and effort. Next, the plane needed to be cleaned. Then, the airline was waiting on paperwork. Et cetera.

On most trips, I take at least two books: one to get me out there, and one to get me back. On the way to Boston, I read Inman Majors novel “Wonderdog.” The other book was “Candide.” Really. And after thirty pages of that, I decided I couldn’t read any more Voltaire, and headed off to the newsstand. I announced I was going to “buy trash.”

For me, trash translates into sports magazine or men’s magazine. Either one would be fine. Despite numerous pages of advertisements, GQ usually does have a couple of really good articles. Sports is sports, and I could read about the MLB trade deadline and a human interest story or three about an athlete from the 60’s who has fallen into obscurity, or drugs, or obscurity and drugs. No problem!

Instead, I bought Harper’s.

It was a long rectangular store, and the back wall was crowded from floor to ceiling with magazines. There were rows and rows of loud covers: half-dressed men and women, blurry photos of celebrities, ominous photographs of poverty or shadowy images of cities and highways, surrounded by bright packages of chocolate candy bars, bags of candy and pretzels and nuts and chips, coolers loaded with soda and fruit juice and water, a steady hum from the omnipresent televisions hovering in the corners.

My stomach growled and my back ached, and the thought of eating any of this food or reading any of these magazines frustrated me. Why did I have to consume – yup, consume, both my reading and my food – such garbage? There didn’t seem to be anyone else around me. And finally after ten minutes of dithering, I gave up trying to convince myself that there was nothing wrong with reading Sports Illustrated, shrugged and grabbed Harper’s, then reached the counter, and in the next second was back at my gate.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge I was tired and crabby: everyone is a little worn down by the end of a vacation, particularly a “vacation” that was a long weekend based on a wedding. Those aren’t relaxing. But I tend to have the same response when I hear the phrase “summer reading”: just sort of puts me on edge, for two reasons. One, it’s the idea of consumption (notice that the “summer reading” books all have basically the same three or four very similar cover images and layouts). Second, there is the feeling that the book industry believes that when it’s hot outside, no one can read anything other than The Help. Most summer reading isn’t as diverse and interesting and challenging as this guy’s vacation reads.

I’m in the middle of reading The Help right now (really) and I don’t think I have anything to say about that Roxane Gay hasn’t already said better. Maybe the film is okay. I wouldn’t know. In bookstores, there is often a section of “summer reading” that are the books assigned to local high schools. There are some duds in here too, of course (one year I saw “The Secret” was assigned), but on the whole, high school summer reading tends to be books that are sneakily better than you think. Or, maybe, more accurate, better than you remember. Last summer I re-read a pair of books that are often assigned to high school students, and found that they are much better than I realized, that there was in fact a pretty good reason why those books were read and taught and enjoyed every year.

We have to read what captivates us. Why wouldn’t we? Other than what might be assigned for classes – either classes we are teaching or classes we are taking – some writers will admit to feeling that they haven’t read enough. That they haven’t read enough “good” books or the classics or the canon and that, somehow, this makes their own writing ambitions premature, illegitimate. I understand that anxiety: I used to feel this way, too. But there is so much to read. So much great stuff to read. And once we let go of the worry about reading everything, we can take the summer to read one great big book, like Infinite Jest or Anna Karenina.

Summer has another month to go, but for those of us affiliated with a university, in many ways, summer ended this week with the beginning of the autumn semester. We all have enough worries: literary journals reopened for submissions, new students, new colleagues, why hasn’t my agent returned my phone call?, where’d the Borders go?, mailing costs, papers to grade, and so forth. Why worry about what you’re reading? Why follow a marketing trend?

Go ahead and grab that copy of Dostoevsky you haven’t read yet. Great books are worth reading regardless of the weather. And I’m sure Fyodor reads nicely with flip-flops and an umbrella drink.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye