Summer Reading


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

Summer begins colds, rainy, and dreary here in Chicago. During my morning trek to the local farmers’ market, I wrapped myself in a jacket, wielded an umbrella against Nature’s cleansing waters, and rummaged through tables of organic arugula, radishes, rhubarb, tents of baked goods (sold by local bakeries as well as by the local animal shelter), and even more tents of flowering plants, vegetables and herbs. Having moved here from a place where fresh vegetables and fruit, locally produced dairy products (it’s hard to beat a glass of fresh milk), and baked goods are available almost year round, this morning’s market left me wanting.

The cool, wet weather reminded me of a May day twenty-six years ago now when I was about to graduate from seminary. I had finished finals, most of my friends—except of course those who were graduating with me—had already left, important relationships were ending, and I was getting ready to start a Ph.D. program in the fall. Just the normal sorts of transitions in life, really.

That day—I think it was May 21—dawned cold and wet. Now this was in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina, near Raleigh, where summer breaks humidly with a vengeful delight and the heat bears down heavily on the shoulders of all Tarheels. The library was closed that day, but my roommates had already packed up and left, and I had the entire apartment to myself. I made myself a pot of coffee—I was still using a percolator, so I really made a pot rather than letting water run through some maze of electrodes—and stretched out in a chair to read Thomas Oden’s then most recent book, Agenda for Theology. (I was, after all, finishing seminary, and I still thought that it was vital for me to keep up on the most recent conversations and debates in theology and biblical studies, especially if I was going to enter a Ph.D. program. Ah, youth!) I can still feel the crisp pages of the new book in my hands as I turned them and allowed Oden to lead me on a journey out of my room to the fusty debates of early Christian councils.

I spent my entire day lost in Oden’s book. I disagreed with him; I argued with him; I agreed with him sometimes; his eloquent prose captured my imagination and told me a theological story I knew well in a fresh way. If I hadn’t already realized it in some inchoate way before, I realized that day that I wanted nothing more than to spend my time with books. I wanted to use Oden’s bibliography as a reading list that would tutor me in the history of early Christianity and in the history of theology. By this time, I had already read pretty deeply in systematic theology, philosophy, literary criticism and fiction, but I wanted more. Of course, I knew I would get more in graduate school and that it would be directed in some way or another by my courses (what fun to spend a semester reading all of Melville and Hawthorne in one of my seminars and to discover some of America’s greatest literary critics at the same time; what a joy it was to discover Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs and Patrick White’s Voss in the same semester), but I wanted even more. I’m pretty sure that this was the first summer I made a reading list for myself. (I can’t recall everything that was on it, but I do know it was weighted heavily with Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, James Agee and Nikos Kazantzakis.)  

At the same time, of course, I wanted to experience the world in all its sensuous beauty. Eugene Gant will be forever the model of those days for me. Gant, the hero of Thomas Wolfe’s novels Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, wavered between the desire to possess the knowledge of every book in the Harvard University Library and the desire to smell, touch and possess the bustling, opulent and quivering world outside the libraries aisles. Gant named my desires perfectly; I wanted to curl up in my room with books and suck out their marrow; at the same time, I wanted to talk to everyone I met on the streets, make love, play music, plant gardens and watch plants grow.

I don’t know if I’ve achieved an balance in my life between these desires; most of the time I really doubt that I have, though as I have grown older I have more often curled up with a book than burst out onto the stage to play a concert (though I’ve managed to do that a few times recently). I do know, though, that on a cool and wet early summer day like today, I curl up with Emmylou Harris and a book and my thoughts turn to my summer reading list. I share my list—even though it’s not entirely complete and I know some of these will be replaced with others as the months roll by—with you. It’s just a list of books I hope to read or re-read this summer; they’re listed mostly without comment and in no particular order. As you will see, the list contains some very recent books and some classics; I’ll write about some of them here over the summer.

I hope perhaps you might find a title or two that might appeal to you as you meander through the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins)—I’ve actually just finished this; I’ve never been a Kingsolver fan, but this book offers a brilliant account of one family’s attempt to get closer to the sources of their food and to understand the cycles of life. You may never want to eat strawberries in winter again!

Peter Brooks, Henry James Goes to Paris (Princeton University Press)—Brooks is simply one of our best literary critics.

Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle (Scribner)—I missed this when it came out; I’m reading it now and can’t put it down; Walls’ voice is so strong that the story of her growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family tears at your heart and soul.

Cathleen Schine, The New Yorkers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)—I just finished reading this, and it’s a hilarious tale of love going to the dogs on the Upper West Side of New York City. I loved it so much, too, because she was writing about a neighborhood I know well.

Hermoine Lee, Edith Wharton (Knopf)

Martin Duberman, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (Knopf)

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary—I’ll read the latest translation by Margaret Mauldon (Oxford Classics). For me, this is one of the greatest novels of all time, and I re-read it quite often. I taught it for fourteen years and have read all the available translations, so I’m interested in reading Mauldon’s to see how it compares with the others, most notably the great ones by Geoffrey Wall (Penguin) and Francis Steegmuller (Vintage).

F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford)—Simply one of the best accounts of the nine-year period (1850-1859) in which American literature blossomed and flowered. These years produced such now-classic works as The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Leaves of Grass. David Reynolds challenged Matthiessen in his book, Beyond the American Renaissance.

Doris Betts, Souls Raised from the Dead

Emile Zola, Nana

Dieter Henrich, From Kant to Hegel (Harvard)—Not exactly beach reading but there’s a great deal of wealth to be mined from these lectures. It also means I’ll likely be re-reading some Hegel this summer.

“Beach” books—Every summer I read or re-read books about the ocean and beaches. I grew up spending my summer days at the beach, and I’ve forever been fascinated by ocean life. I started out to be a marine biologist but organic chemistry intervened. Here are some of my “beach” books.

The Sea Beach at Ebb Tide

Archie Carr, The Sea Turtle (University Press of Florida)—A classic!

Orrin H. Pilkey, The Beaches Are Moving: The Drowning of America’s Shoreline (Duke University Press)—A must read for anyone really, but it’s essential to understanding the ways that we’ve created the conditions for our own destruction in our coastal areas. If anyone in power had read and understood Pilkey’s book, he would not have been at all surprised why almost nothing could be done to reverse the damage that allowed hurricane Katrina to wreak its havoc in New Orleans.

Rachel Carson, Under the Sea Wind and The Sea Around Us—Carson would have celebrated her 100th birthday on May 27; her powerful prose still moves us.

Happy Reading!

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became
Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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