When trying to figure out what to pack for vacation (short answer: as little as possible!), I’m always stumped by the problem of what book or books to bring along. Will I read this? Will I enjoy reading this? Will I enjoy reading this enough to lug it around? Does it take up too much space in my beach bag? (That last question might seem weird. Beach bags are roomy enough…unless you’re hitting the sand with Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy, one of my beach reads last year. A truly wonderful book, but a bit unwieldy in a lounge chair.)
I usually end up bringing more books – or, in the case of Kloppenberg, more book – than I will find time to read in entirety while on vacation. But this time around, I managed to finish all three of the books I brought with me: Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life — The Public Years, by Charles Capper; Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.
Why those three?
I had read the first volume of Capper’s biography of Fuller the week before my trip – couldn’t put it down, in fact – so bringing the second volume along was an easy choice. In retrospect, it was probably an ill-advised selection for an ocean voyage. But of course I already knew how Fuller’s story was going to end – the mystery was in the telling, and Capper told her life, including its wrenching ending, so wonderfully well. If you’re looking for a model of how to do intellectual history via biography, read Capper on Fuller. You will go on a deep dive into the lived experience of someone who was both extraordinary and emblematic – and of course that’s the key for biography as intellectual history in general, and perhaps the key for understanding Margaret Fuller in particular. It’s the interplay between the utterly unique individual consciousness and the mindset(s) of a broader milieu: a life in bold relief against the currents of her time, channeling and shaping those currents even as she was shaped by them – a rock in the river, strong enough to stand out, sturdy enough to stand upon and from that slippery vantage point survey the whole.
Before this summer, I hadn’t necessarily planned to read the Kipnis book, nor had I planned to not read it. There has been plenty of buzz about it, and plenty of controversy, so it was certainly on my radar screen and in my social media feeds, but that wasn’t enough to move it into my Amazon shopping cart. However, when the news broke that one of the subjects in the book was bringing a defamation lawsuit against Kipnis and her publisher for (among other things) portraying said litigant as excessively litigious, I decided to buy the book and see for myself what Kipnis had done wrong or right. I just starting volume 1 of Capper’s biography when the Kipnis book arrived, so I set it on the top of my “to read” pile and it was ready to hand when I started packing.
Earlier this year, after reading Stoner – good God in heaven, what a fate — I asked for some crowdsourcing help to come up with a list of more academic novels I ought to peruse. In particular, I am looking at gender in portrayals of “the professor” as a fictional character, so I asked people to offer suggestions along those lines. Several folks mentioned Lucky Jim; I ordered it a while back and stashed it for later reading. Vacation time seemed like as good a time as any.
I figured that these three books were all different enough from one another that I would enjoy the variety, and that was certainly true. Each called forth and rewarded a different kind of engagement or stance from me as a reader. But because I read them in succession (in the order listed above), and because I (and not some other person, or several other persons) read them — so that their ideas and themes and language and plots were all bouncing around at the same time in my own little acre of brainspace – I was able to see (or construe) some slight connections between them that might not otherwise have occurred to me.
In the next few blog posts, I’ll talk a little bit more about each of these books and try to retrace the links I found or fashioned between them.
But for now, I’d be glad to learn what the rest of you are reading, by chance or by choice or even as a chore, over the long hot summer.