By THOMAS MOODY
As we fast approach the end of summer, we can finally begin to wave goodbye to the ubiquitous summer reading lists. It seems an obligation of every magazine, journal and blog in the country, no matter their usual focus of coverage, to compile a list of 10 books we must read over the summer, or alert us to the best new paperbacks to pack with our sunscreen and flip-flops for vacation.
Summer appears to be the only season deserving of such lists, which tells us a lot about our reading habits. Is it only on vacation that we are allowed to indulge ourselves in anything longer and more nuanced than a Twitter thread? Does our average routine, which includes two hours of social media activity a day (make that an astonishing nine hours for teenagers), not permit us to read more than snippets of daily news items and current affairs? On Labor Day, are books forced closed across America and put down during the cooler months, only to be picked up and opened again once Memorial Day rolls around?
It is interesting to consider the implications of this trend on the sorts of books that are read, and perhaps more importantly, the sorts of books that get published. Vogue’s summer reading list this year included “13 Books to Thrill, Entertain and Sustain,” which are adjectives that make great list copy, but not ones that can necessarily be applied to some of the most important and enduring works of world literature. Does the middle portion of Moby-Dick, for instance, which takes a tedious inventory of the anatomy of whales that is in its way crucial to the success of the book, either thrill, entertain or sustain us?
One of the most impressive literary achievements of the past decade, Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, was rejected 18 times by publishers.
“I get hurt when I meet editors who tell me about books they really liked but couldn’t publish. I don’t know what that means,” Beatty said in an interview after The Sellout won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2016.
Striking an appropriate balance between advancing a great book, and advancing a book that will sell great, is nothing new to publishers. And forces outside publishing have long altered the direction of reading and writing habits. When fiction began to be serialized in newspapers in the 1840s, it revolutionized how novels were written, and how the public began to view their role in society.
In Walter Benjamin’s famous essays on Charles Baudelaire, he compares the work of the great French author Alexandre Dumas before and after he began to be serialized. Of course a technological innovation as radical and pervasive as the internet has changed and will continue to change reading and writing habits, but it seems a mistake to subject a pursuit as contemplative, meditative and rewarding as reading to the culture of cataloging, and at the same time designate it to a single season.
So in protest of these summer reading lists, I would like to propose an Indian Summer reading list—or dare I say it, a fall reading list—of one, which does not involve any reading at all. It is Melissa Catanese’s book of found photographs Voyagers. It is a book filled with beautiful black-and-white portraits of people in the liminal space between reality and fiction that is reading.
The anonymous photos include a young woman in a sundress lying outdoors in a field, propped up by her elbows in long summer grass, her eyes fixated on the book in her hands, a ray of sun hitting the page as if to highlight its importance. The image is juxtaposed with a man lying flat in bed in what looks like some kind of institution. A hospital? A prison? In either case, the expression on his face is just as concentrated, just as tranquil, as the young woman’s.
The photographs show the magic and power of reading, and ask where it is we are exactly when we are doing it. Are we inside the world of the author, or on our couches at home? Or are we someplace between the two, voyagers on a journey we can take every day of the year?