What Not to Read This Summer
Summer is, tradition has it, a time for lazy lingering over little more than the lilt of the breeze on the water on a long, languid, sunny day. Sure, we might bring a book or two along to the beach or a mountain hideaway, but even literary fare is lighter through days of sunshine, humidity, and generous afternoon naps. Summer is for relaxing, recharging, and resetting our mental, physically, and spiritual bearings. Paradoxically, affecting the dreamy grace required for a deep summer think takes a certain counter-Puritan lack of industry.
Given that, we’ve taken a vacation this year from our usual call to Bearings contributors for summer reading suggestions. The fact is, we’ve all taken in a lot of information since the perhaps more hopeful days of last summer—more indeed than many of us can handle. Our brains need a little airing out. Our hearts crave respite. Our bodies long for a bit of relief from tasks even as slight as turning a page.
So, feel as free as you’d like not to try to absorb Marginalia’s remarkable 8-part forum on Cynthia M. Baker’s Jew, itself a work of astonishing linguistic, historical, cultural, and political depth that explores the meanings of the word “Jew” from antiquity to the present day. Save that for the fall.
Still, while you’re not reading either Baker’s compelling book or the learned commentary on it, maybe it’s worth mulling over what the labels we use for ourselves and for others functionally do. How do they shape our self-understanding? How do they influence our relationships? Our communities? Our nation?
Really, though, just let the thoughts ease into your consciousness. Don’t make it a project. Don’t feel obliged, for instance, to pick up Arundhati Roy’s new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It serves as an excellent conversation partner for Baker’s book. The latter work offers a genealogy of one experience of religio-ethnic labeling, and Roy’s book extends the exploration in a more contemporary direction that throws in the complexities of gender identity, globalization, social justice, and art. But the paperback edition is still pricey, so give that a wait for now.
While you’re waiting, if your mind should wander to what it means to love the world and its inhabitants, and to appreciate its beauties—even as we cannot help but see, feel, and otherwise know in our bodies and our souls how relentlessly broken and even cruel it is—well, that can’t be all bad, can it? I mean, it is not as though such reflection, perhaps best undertaken just as you doze off to sleep, requires you to immediately begin picking up the debris left behind by Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” as rendered by Walter Benjamin:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Thankfully, we don’t have to complete the clean-up work right now. But we can give some thought to what we do with the past and its great heap of wreckages, besides turning our backs on it in the name of some sort of “progress” that hardly moves us any closer to a world we’d recognize as Paradise.
What does it mean, we might consider, to live joyfully—as Roy’s characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for the most part do—in a graveyard, negotiating a present that both depends upon, and is not wholly defined by, the past? What must we remember, if we wish to be fully who we are, to label ourselves correctly? What must we forget?
These are deep, and maybe even heavy, thoughts. But haven’t I just said that summer is meant to be an escape from such cogitating?
Okay, yes. I admittedly did. But it’s summer. I don’t have to be consistent.
What’s more, the escape from acquiring new knowledge through summer reading lists—which conventionally are meant to improve us by fall—opens space for our own thoughts to breathe a bit, to develop, to grow. Summertime provides precisely the sort of liminal space in which we can let go of the compulsion to consume new ideas, master new approaches to whatever work we usually do, and consider new possibilities from the outside in. Summer is prime time for exploring our own intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual musings, lubricated by tall, cool glasses of tea or fruity, umbrella-wielding cocktails.
Given which, you should not take up Frank Trentmann’s masterful, 800-plus-page tome, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, this summer. This is not least because you’d have to head over to the consumerist dystopia that is Amazon.com to buy the book in the first place. There you might be tempted to nab a copy of Richard V. Reeve’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It, which offers something of an antidote to Trentmann’s more historical and structural analysis.
It’s also because such heavy page lifting would leave little time for your own hammock-bound reflections on the quotidian stuff of life—the concrete, physical, shrink-wrapped stuff—that keeps you from really engaging the truly important stuff of life. How, your summer lollygagging self might wonder, can we turn ourselves around to face the junk heap of our consumerist history—the literal junk heap that has franchised itself across the planet—in all its economic, political, social, and, yes, religious dimensions? How can we better attend to the systemic nature and effects of consumerism, moving beyond banal appeals to personal moralism? What can we do as communities of faith, as advocates for public policy, as people concerned with not labeling ourselves and our world through the things we acquire?
And, of course, for Bearings readers, there’s another big think implied in all of this: for ministry leaders and faith communities, what are the implications of social and cultural practices of labeling … of remembering and forgetting the past as a grounding for a happier (if resiliently imperfect) future … of participating in the deconstruction of the world’s consumerist architectures? On what other practices and systems should we set our reflection, our compassion, our action?
This is a lot to think about, and it draws upon a lot of not reading. We’ve slowed the pace of Bearings over the summer so you have more time for that. So, back to the chaise lounge, you lot. And don’t forget the sun block.