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Summer Offers Time for Pleasure Reading


By Sarah J. Schaffer

As difficult as it is, I impose a ban on myself during the school year at Harvard: no pleasure reading. Many of my friends, even those in similarly reading-intensive concentrations like history and literature, do read for fun during the school year, but I know that if I crunch one bite of the forbidden fruit, I will be doomed forever--or at least until the end of exams. With more than 1,000 pages of reading per week, I simply don't have the three or four hours it takes to read a trashy novel, or the 10 or more that it can take to appreciate a good one. And one novel can lead to another, creating a slippery slope.

Although January intersession provides some respite, it is not until summer that I cast off the leg-irons of heavy syllabi and give myself a three-month furlough.

It's not that I mind reading books for class; far from it. They're usually very well-written histories and novels. Given the chance, I would probably pick them up on my own and devour them. But because they're on the syllabus, they are work, almost chores.

When school lets out, on the other hand, there are no syllabi. Every book is a chance at wonder and freedom. Tastes and imagination run wild, through the libraries, book fairs and endless bookstores of summer.

In summers past, I have sporadically tried to tackle the heavies of literature, with limited success. The most notable occasion came after my first year at Harvard, when I was living in the Jordan Co-op and reading Moby Dick (a dismal combination). It took me about two months to read, in which time I also re-read The Great Gatsby and plowed through endless fashion magazines to avoid sloshing in the tracks of the white whale. Although I'm an American history and literature concentrator, I have as yet evaded a re-reading of Melville's tome (sacrilege in many Harvard quarters), but I think Ahab's ghost may return to haunt me next year in 19th-century literature.

However, usually such good intentions to stuff myself full of the canon fizzle with the languid heat of July. After all, it is summer, and who wants to tackle Melville's darkness when it's a balmy 80 degrees out?

Last summer, I didn't even pretend to start reading a classic. On a bookshelf in Barnes and Noble, I found the first book of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a series set in San Francisco about a group of strangely-paired friends. I was done with the sixth book a week later.

That is the best part of summer reading. No rationing of pages; no guilt about being unproductive; simply the pleasure of immersing oneself in whatever strikes one's fancy, for as long as one cares to.

This summer, as the stack on my nightstand will attest, I've been flitting from one book to another, from non-fiction to fiction, from light to heavy, from practical to fantastical, all depending on mood.

There are the career books: Women Lawyers, by Mona Harrington, and the Princeton Review's Guide to Careers. It has always comforted me to read other people's advice, even when (as in the guide), it entails filling out quizzes and saying that my work style and interests are "blue" and "green" (I don't quite understand it either). At least then I can try to convince myself that I'm not completely directionless in life.

Nor am I at all certain that I want to be a lawyer, but at least reading about the challenges some women face is teaching me about the profession and about women in society today, regardless of whether I pursue a career in the law.

Closely related to the career books was one I recently finished called Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, by Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell. A friend of mine in social anthropology recommended it a year or two ago, and I finally got around to it last month. Through a study of 65 private boarding schools, the authors describe the intense and sometimes cloistering atmosphere of the enclaves that socialize America's future leaders--places far from my own experience and understanding, but close to many students at Harvard.

As for novels, I started John Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy and got through the first book (The 42nd Parallel) and half the second book (Nineteen Nineteen) before letting my attention wander. The books are heavily influenced by history and are not quick reads. I'll return to them later in the summer, when my mind will be better prepared to soak them up.

Since I'm a writing junkie, I picked up Writing for Story, a guide by Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, on the recommendation of my summer newspaper's writing coach and on the theory that it's always easier to read a book about writing than to write oneself.

The last book on my nightstand, and the one furthest out of my normal range, is called Godel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R. Hofstader. It won the Pulitzer Prize in the early 1980s and ties together math, art and music through images of endlessly looping equations, drawings and musical canons. I've slugged through about 200 pages of it. Although it's starting to get into deep computer theory, which is difficult to read, it's still interesting.

One of the book's most fascinating tidbits deals with Bach.

Since the German musical scale contains an "H" (their "H" is our "B" and their "B" is our "B-flat"), Bach's name spells out a chromatic and eerie four-note melody. According to his son, at the point in the "Art of the Fugue" when Bach brought in that melody, he died. The book is full of such strange coincidences and upheavals.

As the end of summer approaches, I'll try to cram ever more books into my list of must-reads and probably get through about 10 percent of them. That's how it always is: so many books and never enough time to read them all. At least in school, one can pretend that there are a finite number of required books one must read to be educated in a certain subject. In real life, there are infinitely many, as many as the possible variations on a Bach fugue. In a way, it's comforting that the store of knowledge is never exhaustible. On the other hand, it feels like a losing battle. But in mid-July, the summer still at its peak, anything seems possible--the knowledge is there for the taking, at least until September comes.

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