A few weeks ago The New York Times’ Room for Debate posed the questions: Is "summer reading" now just "reading"? Have novels become more entertaining, and less of a cultural touchstone or a political voice? I read every opinion and came away tilting my head and making strange faces.
Jane Smiley, the only woman on the panel, and why was that, talked about the freedom to imagine and contemplate, and how reading novels gives readers the opportunity to “see the world through alien perspectives.” William Deresiewicz was poetic. Here I’m paraphrasing: fine writers are still writing, but sometimes it takes us a while to recognize them and while we are working on that, the novel continues to tell us stories, in many forms and many voices.
James Gunn set up a lightening rod when he attacked Henry James saying no one reads his “literary” novels and generally skewering almost all contemporary literary novels. The more social and political the theme of the book, the less literary the book, he says. Huh? Name one book that challenges that. I’ll begin with any of Edgewidge Danticat’s novels. For social commentary he suggest reading crime novels or science fiction.
I’m not going to summarize everyone’s statement (you can read this Room for Debate online), but Matt de la Peña hit a real nerve, I think. We don’t want to be sad or self-reflective. “Life is sad, man,” he writes, and it is part of life to have “bouts of melancholy”. He mentions other media and shorter attention spans, but I wonder if it isn’t about the world being too much with us, not getting and spending necessarily, but just too much work, too much news, too much media, too much sadness, too much, too much. We so often have no mental space in which to rest. Lighter novels provide that, yes, year-round.
At the moment, I’m reading Teju Cole’s Open City and it’s taking me some time because it makes me sad. It’s well written – dare I say literary – and the writer’s intelligence is apparent from the very beginning, and I love that. A good book and a good read, but not right before I go to sleep. For that time, I do need something different. Is this okay? Definitely. We chose books that are right for the moment. If, however, there is never a moment for more challenging reading, what does that say?