Summer Reading

By Bill Kohlhaase

Posted June 5, 2008 in Arts & Culture

Rachel Donaido’s recent New York Times essay—“It’s Not You, It’s Your Books”—ignited the passions of the reading class. Are we literate types so narrow-minded that finding the wrong book on our potential beloved’s shelf—wrong, that is, in our eyes—gives reason to split? The article posed all kinds of disturbing questions: Has self-branding become so important to the Facebook generation that we demand compatibility right down to our favorite authors? Will people think I’m a slut if I’m caught reading Anais Nin?

In these days of Netflix and text-message sex, we’d consider sleeping with anyone who reads (just kidding, dear). If you demand your significant other share your passion for John Grisham or Ayn Rand then you get what you deserve. More open-minded? Read non-fiction. Science, politics and history are turn-ons. Non-fiction stimulates conversation, suggesting cocktail chatter bombshells like, “I know how porcupines practice safe sex.”

The key to enjoying non-fiction is to find a subject you enjoy. That’s why we think

Mary Roach’s Bonk(W.W. Norton, hardback, $24.95) is a no-miss proposition. Any book that couples science and sex has got to be good, right? Where do you think the porcupine bit came from? This isn’t some dry account of sex research. Roach knows how to tease and keep her readers stimulated. Can dead men get an erection? Is the clitoris a tiny penis? And what the hell is a penis-cam anyway? Guaranteed to get you hot-and-bothered about sex research.

Roach’s previous book deals with that other human fascination: death.  Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (W.W. Norton, paperback, $13.95) might be just the ticket to attract that Goth guy/gal you’ve had your mascara-darkened eye on. Being green and all, we especially like the chapter on corpse compost. Compare Roach’s black-and-white, Morticia-like author portrait on the cover of Stiff to the one in Bonk which has her leaning in a doorway with a come-hither smile, assets displayed to advantage. Now that’s smart book marketing!

This year, nothing’s sexier than politics unless it’s a good murder mystery. Was it Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon who poisoned modern politics? Two recent books consider this question, each pushing his own man as the culprit. Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (HarperCollins, hardback $27.95) is much kinder to its subject than Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, hardback, $37.50). If you ask us, we think Nixon stuck the knife in the back of what’s disparagingly referred to as “liberal” government (call it the murder of The New Deal) and Regan did the twisting. You can attract both Republicans and Democrats with these.

For perspective on the current election, pick up Hunter S. Thompson’s1973 tome Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Grand Central Publishing, paperback, $15.99). It’s not hard to see Hillary first as Ed Muskie and later as Hubert Humphrey, or Obama as George McGovern. The Republicans owned a vastly unpopular war in ’72 and Nixon still won. Will history repeat? Thompson twists this tale, mostly with booze, as only he knows how.

Radical attractions are found in Students For a Democratic Society: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and others (Hill and Wang, hardback, $22). It’s the ’60s all over again, this time in comic book form. Here’s how it all went right before it all went wrong. Enough sex, drugs and music to keep even the apolitical enchanted.

What was lost and why it’s worth pursuing again is the subject of Eric Alterman’s Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook For Post-Bush America (Viking, hardback, $24.95). Alterman spends time showing how the word “liberal” has been poisoned then goes on to destroy the far-right notions that have become part and parcel of political smears. True liberals, some of the best looking people we know, will want to study William T. Vollmann’s Poor People (Harper Perennial, paperback, $16.95). Journalist/novelist Vollmann has traveled the world asking people if they think they are poor and, if so, why? This fascinating collection of first person accounts comes up with human definitions for a condition that varies from country to country, even person to person.

An oldie but goodie with quotable wisdom that’ll elevate your cocktail chatter is Epistles (Letters)of Seneca, the Roman Stoic who had something to say about almost everything (several editions in paper and hard cover). The socially challenged might want to read the letter headed “Good Company,” those considering a vacation this summer will want to review “Travel As A Cure For Discontent” and the liquor-loving among us might find “On Drunkenness” reason to pop a cork. Here’s to love and love of books!


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