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Critic's Notebook

Counting on summer's promise of boundless books

The unfulfilled summer reading project? David Ulin knows it well
Another summer, another chance to work on reading aspirations, per @davidulin
On David Ulin's summer reading list? Thomas Piketty's 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century'

I tried to reread "Infinite Jest" last summer. More like: planned to reread it. I joined a Facebook group modeled on Infinite Summer, the 2009 digital reading project in which hundreds of readers and commentators (including John Green and Colin Meloy) made their way through David Foster Wallace's massive novel over the course of 16 weeks.

As with so many summer aspirations, this one went the way of good intentions: articulated and then discarded, returned to the realm of imaginary reading, more wish than fulfillment, not unlike the flicker of a dream.

On the one hand, this suggests the futility of the grand summer project, the idea that, during these three months, we might accomplish what we otherwise don't have time to do. Summer, after all, isn't what it once was, sprawling out across the endless days, time loose and undifferentiated, full of possibility.

On the other hand, as Gabriel García Márquez once observed, "It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams." And so, I aspire to participate in some vast reading project for the summer because, as it always has, summer offers us the fantasy that we might slow (or turn back) time.

I first explored the work of Thomas Pynchon ("V." and "The Crying of Lot 49") as a summer reading project the year I graduated college and read my way across Europe in a second-class rail seat and a succession of cheap pensions. Another year it was the "Illuminatus! Trilogy" and its nonfiction epilogue "Cosmic Trigger" that captivated me. Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Robert Coover: All are writers I discovered in the summer, outside the bounds of assigned reading, of official curriculum, of anybody's recommendations (or expectations) but my own.

Why is this important? It implies a certain freedom, a self-direction, the faith that we know what's best for ourselves. In that sense, even the unfulfilled summer reading project has its value: the book you try to read and don't complete. My experience with "Infinite Jest" fits that category (although I had read the book once before), as do attempts to reckon with "Vanity Fair" or "Finnegans Wake" or "All the King's Men."

After all, one summer's failures, its elisions, may be another summer's successes — or at least, that's the hope.

So what are my projects for this summer, now that I've staked out such a claim?

For one, there's the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle," a multi-volume autobiographical novel, the third book of which, subtitled "Boyhood" (Archipelago, $27), has just been published in the United States. It's tempting to compare Knausgaard to Proust, whom, I should admit, I've never read. (I do have an aunt who for many years brought "Swann's Way" to the beach as her own summer project — although this was more a way of showing off or, more accurately, posing: the book as intellectual accessory.)

My interest in Knausgaard is different, a curiosity about the depth and the duration of his self-reflexive gaze. You have to be ruthless to write autobiographically, not just toward others but also toward yourself. You have to tell it, to expose your faults and degradations, to make yourself complicit in what you write.

"I am probably as far from the person I aspire to be as possible," Knausgaard tells us in the first volume. "I didn't have the faintest notion about any of this before I had children. I thought then that everything would be fine as long as I was kind to them. And that is actually more or less how it is, but nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. The immense intimacy you have with them, the way in which your own temperament and mood are, so to speak, woven into theirs, such that your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself, hidden, but seem to take shape outside you, and are then hurled back."

Another book I mean to read this summer is Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" (Belknap/Harvard, $39.95) — although it is of course not a summer book. This, however, is another promise of the season: that of catching up. Since it first appeared this spring, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" has seized the conversation, framing an argument, that we are rapidly returning to 19th century levels of income inequity, which if not new, still demands to be heard.

As for its influence, it may have provoked Bill Clinton to reframe his economic legacy in a speech last month at Georgetown University; Piketty himself appeared recently with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has praised the book. "The data don't lie on this," she told a Boston audience in April. "He's got good historical data, and boy, what it shows is trickle down doesn't work."

Last, there's Rick Perlstein's "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan" (Simon & Schuster, $37.50), a follow-up to his magnificent 2008 book, "Nixonland." Perlstein is my favorite kind of historian, one who takes not just the long but also the wide view, looking for lines of influence, unexpected connections and threads. Here, he frames Ronald Reagan as the unlikely but inevitable counterweight to the anxiety and dissolution that marked mid-1970s America, especially in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.

It was — don't forget — less than two years after Nixon's resignation that Reagan nearly wrestled the Republican nomination away from an incumbent president (Gerald Ford) and in so doing signaled the rise of a new sort of conservatism, steeped in a mythic sense of national destiny. We're still dealing with the fallout today. For Perlstein, this makes Reagan a figure not only of his moment but of ours also — transformative both as a politician and as a social force.

I know, I know; it's a lot of reading — but how else would I rather spend my time? This is the thing about summer, that it is a renewable resource, that every year we get the chance to do it right.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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