Saturday, July 03, 2004

Summer Reading Redux

Bad things, good people—how does it happen? Some are hexed at birth by mischievous fairies. Some haplessly trigger an ancient curse. And some, despite taking history degrees, can only find work in an English department.

So it is for me and for my brother-in-law, Moses, with whom I love to discuss books. Moses and I recently compared summer reading lists, he nodding civilly at my Woolf and I smiling tolerantly at his Vonnegut. (Full disclosure: Having never read Slaughterhouse-Five, I know Vonnegut mostly from his Breakfast of Champions. I had to abandon Timequake, an embarrassing distillation of the author’s most annoying quirks.) Fortunately, in our desire to fill gaps in our American lit. educations, Moses and I inevitably have some titles in common. Thick on both our lists were mid-twentieth-century stories about bookish heroes—men (always men) who are at first the clear-eyed critics and then the courageous victims of repressive, futuristic regimes.

I just finished one such title, Fahrenheit 451, which I took from the library before knowing that Fahrenheit 9/11 was in the works. The book has some highly skilled moments and, of course, a reverence for libraries and books. But it also feels a little dated, and I cringed to find that the book's most easily distracted, anti-intellectual characters are the silly women. (Yes, the noble, nubile teenager Clarisse awakens Guy Montag’s dissatisfaction. But, as befits her role as a male fantasy, she gets flattened by a car in short order.) Still, I admire Bradbury’s science fiction. He’s nothing if not wildly creative and prolific. (And those who encounter Bradbury's short story “All Summer in a Day” while in junior high seem unable ever to forget it.)

On Wednesday, I sat all day with George Colt’s The Big House, which I might not have found so absorbing had we not recently visited Cape Cod and were I not so worshipful of the author’s wife (the talented Anne Fadiman). Colt’s memoir very rarely crosses the line into self-indulgence. His lovely writing style is complemented by a wise narrative structure—one that intercuts characters and history, and that leaves the fate of the “Big House” a mystery to the end.

Colt claims himself neither as the clear-eyed critic nor as the courageous victim. It’s not that kind of book. But his chronicle of a house that is burden and treasure—and of a family awkwardly revising the story of itself—seemed very apropos of the Fourth of July holiday somehow.


At 11:07 AM, Blogger Mel said...

I agree about the dated feel to Fahrenheit 451, (which is true of a lot of SF after a few decades) -- but when I taught it in a sophomore class a few years ago, it worked wonders. For people like us, love and reverence for books/knowledge is like breathing air. But that's not true for many students. So it was great to teach something that really got them excited and outraged about censorship in all of its forms...

At 11:47 PM, Blogger YelloCello said...

My other brother-in-law (also a teacher) tonight described a similar positive experience in using Fahrenheit 451 with his students. I'm glad to be reminded of the book's continued relevance and effectiveness in the classroom.


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