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Staff picks – Classics for Summer

I was recently alerted to the fact that Oprah is hosting a summer book club. Well, actually her producer seems to be conducting it, which is maybe why it hasn’t been as well publicized as other Oprah reading events. Leading up to picking the title, a request went out to help pick the selection: the criteria for suggestions? The book needed to be a classic.

To me, the summer seems like a great time to catch up on classic or to involve yourself in some ambitious reading. It’s a time when I actually have a few moments to sit down and devote myself to a title and am maybe already relaxed enough that I can read something a bit meaty.

The first time I tried this, I tackled Anna Karenina. If you’re looking for a long summer read, this is a great one. Romance and betrayal and beautiful descriptions. In addition to the plot of the book, I have a very visual recollection of this book: summers in an elaborate villa, winters in the city, labouring in the fields and seeing and being seen at a horse race – all of which somehow appeal to me in the mindset of summer. I actually read this again several summers later.

Some of my summer classic reads have been less epic, but no less wonderful. A few years ago I read Nella Larsen’s slim Harlem Renaissance classic Passing in just a few days. Simple on the surface, this is a compelling novel of race relations and human experience. Another slim summer classic that is also set in the 1920s is the Great Gatsby. A very different side of American culture than that depicted in Larsen’s book, but another strong critique of American culture at the time. In both books the setting jumps off the page – including the heat of Chicago and New York in the American summer.

A classic novel that I’ve recommended to an ever growing list of people (many of whom read it in the summer) is The Woman in White. This is a great book for people who think that classic novels are too slow. It’s a mystery, told in various voices and quite a page-turner for a Victorian novel. It’s one of my favourite classic novels.
I will also admit that my attempts at reading classics in the summer are not always successful. Last summer, some friends and I formed a book club to read Ulysses. I got about 100 pages in and just couldn’t go any further. I liked the flow of the writing, but I had no idea what was going on. In the time since, however, I’ve discovered a book called The New Bloomsday Book, which is described as “a crystal clear, line by line running commentary on the plot of James Joyce’s Ulysses which illuminates many symbolic themes and literary structures along the way.” Sounds like just what I needed (and the members of my book club too, I pretty sure only 1 of the 6 of us finished).

This summer I am determined to finish Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and apparently I’m not alone. A friend just sent me an email to the website Infinite Summer, which is a blog that is trying to encourage to read Infinite Jest this summer – complete with suggested reading schedule (don’t worry, you’re only a little behind!) Although only slightly over 10 years old, the novel is already considered a classic of post-modernism (or post-post-modernism, depending on who you ask) which Kirkus reviews described as a “raucous, Falstaffian, deadly serious vision of a cartwheeling culture in the self-pleasuring throes of self-destruction…”It’s very ambitious, very convoluted and very, very funny and I’m excited to see it through to the end.

Oh, and back to the start of this post. If you want to join along with Oprah’s producer and her summer book club, they are reading Middlemarch, the classic novel of British provincial life.

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