Summer Reading of the Past, Present, and Future

July 20, 2007 was a strange night in my hometown of Naperville, Ill. Normally adored by businessmen for its travel-guide beauty, reviled by teens for its mind-numbing monotony, and frequented by twenty-somethings for its moderately hip bar scene, downtown Naperville was alive on this night in a way I had never seen. The businesses cleverly changed their colors and names, the teens un-self-consciously donned outlandish costumes, and the drunken twenty-somethings made way for the flood of families who filled the streets, all in the name of a book.

But what really caught my attention about the release festivities for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was something much more subtle. On the front window of local Anderson’s Bookshop, a piece of white newsprint asked a seemingly simple question in bold black letters: “Is Snape Evil?” Around that question, the city’s children held a passionate debate in multicolored scrawls.

In J.K. Rowling’s books, of course, evil is little more than a plot point, an answer to the question, “Which side are you on?” But in the hands of an author like Michael Chabon—whose “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is my book of the summer—problems like evil, exile, redemption, faith, and identity become so much more: questions contained in plot and action, character and style, dialogue and metaphysical meditation.

Chabon has made no secret of his interest in genre fiction and desire to obliterate the supposed highbrow/lowbrow divide. In 2005, he wrote a passionate defense of entertainment, arguing that rather than handling “the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs,” intelligent people should reject “a narrow, debased concept of entertainment.” Instead, Chabon proposed an expanded definition encompassing “everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature”—a well-written sentence, a shocking plot twist, a pointed challenge to our political or philosophical beliefs, or an ineffable moment of transcendence.

In “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Chabon fulfills that essay’s promise, and entertains wildly. Set in a fictional universe in which Jews inhabit not the Middle East but Alaska, Chabon’s novel tells the hardboiled tale of Meyer Landsman as he attempts to solve a strange and seemingly inconsequential murder while dealing with the burdens of his depression and alcoholism, his disintegrated marriage, and the coming reversion of his Jewish homeland to the American government.

In both form and content, Chabon’s novel is a true expression of pluralism, firmly grounded in both its particularity and its universality, fully Jewish and fully American. It’s a powerful challenge to the politics of Israel and the United States. It’s a haunting exploration of the mysteries, burdens, and pitfalls of religion. It’s a moving contemplation of family and community. And, most of all, it’s a damn fine story, one that makes art and entertainment indistinguishable and reminds us of the many reasons that we began to read—and the many reasons that we still do.

More than any other time, summer offers a chance to indulge these literary passions. Six Crimson editors now share the summer reads that inspired in them the fervor of a child awaiting the new Harry Potter. They may have approached these books for different reasons, but one thing is certain: They were all entertained.