Keeping Up with the Classics-Lite

You don't have to finish Anna Karenina to make your summer reading worthwhile. 

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Summer seems like it would be a good time to embark on a thousand-page classic novel. The season implies more free time and lush park lawns where you can lounge outside and read for hours on end. But, in all reality, you probably don't have more free time than you did in the winter (it's not like we live in France where people have, you know, vacations). You likely have the same job you did in the wintertime. You might even have the stress of more social commitments—what with barbecues and concerts and the general merriment that comes with warmth. Even when you do take the time to luxuriate in the sun, book in hand, you don’t really want to be hanging out with Leopold Bloom.

Last summer I finally started Leo Tolstoy’s nearly-1,000 page epic Anna Karenina. It was going pretty well. I was intrigued by Anna's moral quandaries. But then I got to Tolstoy's lengthy, philosophical, digressions about the Russian peasantry. Perhaps this reflects poorly on me, but let me admit it anyway: descriptions of field-hoeing and the fertile Russian countryside did not agree with sweaty subway platforms. I put it down, retreating into something  new, but familiar: Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad, which I immediately fell in love with. Sorry about that, Leo.

Just because you decide that you might cut your losses ahead of time and not even start Moby Dick doesn’t necessarily mean summer isn't a good time to read the classics. Maybe just not the classics you’re thinking of though.

I have started up the habit of using summer to catch up on a canon of pop literature I call the classics-lite: serious literature that's on the lighter side. The sort of thing your high school teacher never assigned, but that a hipster college TA maybe did. One summer, for instance, I decided to finally pick up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, with its grimy New York that's hardly like the city I live in. I've sweated through Neely O'Hara's pill addiction in Valley of the Dolls, and Portnoy's experimentation with liver in Portnoy's Complaint. None of these are particularly hard reads, nor are they important in the way literature professors consider Tolstoy important, but they are touchstones that I felt I had missed. And, frankly, reading these books is better than twiddling your thumbs in a humid apartment.

Of course, your classics-lite are not the same as my classics-lite, but I define them as such: Books you don't feel particularly daunting but you’ve always meant to read and, perhaps most importantly, feel like a blind spot in your sense of cultural history. If you're a sci-fi fan but somehow missed Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series, then make that your summer project. Or you could use the summer to catch up on the young adult fiction you missed reading in your younger years. I'm not talking about picking up the Hunger Games. Maybe you never read Ender's Game. Maybe you missed The Giver. Then again, maybe you do want to try a notoriously intimidating author's work, but in a manageable context. So you decide to read Dubliners instead of Ulysses. You want to read a Russian but you stick to Chekhov's short stories instead of Tolstoy's doorstoppers. You want to read a tale of the American South, so you opt for Carson McCullers over incomprehensible William Faulkner. You pick up the Hemingway you never read in school; the Steinbeck you somehow thought was outdated (it isn't). 

Maybe its the holdover from our days doing summer reading, but summer feels like a good time to educate ourselves. But we're grown ups now, and we should do it on our own terms. So if you, like me, don't find yourself enjoying how many hundreds of pages you have left, pick up something that's—well—lighter.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.