By CAROLYN COOKE, Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Here’s a possibly insane confession in the context of a blog: I suffer from Long Attention Span Disorder. Most bytes of information move too fast and demand too little engagement for me to remember them. By the time I’ve walked a mile up our dirt road to collect The New York Times folded into a rainproof sleeve and placed by hand in its blue roadside box, my husband knows all the bad news already; he’s also digested new feeds via the Daily Kos and Matt Drudge, and knows already what Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and John Stewart have to say about the Uzbecks and the Kyrgyz or gay marriage as a civil rights issue or why the BP oil spill is the fault of militant environmentalists or whether the new female version of Viagra should be federally subsidized. Besides a constant loop of headline news, CNN delivers a ticker tape of fresh hells at the bottom of the screen. Most media experiences leave me feeling ratlike and red, my eyes darting, tail twitching, waiting for the next bomb to drop.
I prefer, when possible, to get my news of the world in the form of a good, long book. Instead of tweets and feeds, I like to drop out of the digital life for hours or days, and come back changed, salt dripping down my chin and one eye larger than the other.
For many of us in academe, summer is reading season, a hot, wanton time for big novels and stories, wild works of the imagination. I try to read all summer with disciplined abandon, precisely the way my grandmother used to devour a Whitman’s sampler. I’m gluttonous for information, atmosphere, language, story, strangeness, for substance I can’t get from travel, conversation, news, films, theory. Here follow nine excuses to spend the next nine weeks with your nose in a book:
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Half of a Yellow Sun"
A big, realist novel of the Biafran secession from Nigeria following the 1966 coup by the Muslim-dominated Hausa Fulani tribe in the north, the subsequent attacks on the Igbo and Yoruba people of the south--and the infamous chaos and famine that followed. The novel reveals multiple aspects of postcolonial and tribal experience through the unforgettable character of Ugwu, a houseboy swept up into the great current of history. Adichie also nails the revolutionary temper of the privileged Igbo family at the center of the novel--a Marxist university professor and two sisters--who become increasingly active in the movement for Biafran Independence.
2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, "Infidel"
The Somali-born Hirsi Ali, who has been commandeered by Christopher Hitchens and the American Enterprise Institute for her renunciation of Islam, tells complex stories tracing the dissolution of the Somali Republic between independence from Britain, Italy, and France in 1960, through the dictatorship of Siad Barre and the total dissolution of the federal government in 1991. The period coincided with her childhood, spent in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. In fearless prose, Hirsi Ali describes the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the long reach of the Darod and Hawyie Clans, which provide structure and protection for the Somali diaspora. Hirsi Ali’s radical self-assertion in refusing her “destiny” (an arranged marriage and, finally, Islam itself) has made her a pariah and a hero.
3. Hermione Lee, "Virginia Woolf"
My all-time favorite biography. Lee is an insight machine into the great modernist as well as the soul of the artist and the links between social disease, art and madness. Warning: You may be distracted from the remainder of this list by the compulsion to read Woolf for the rest of the summer.
4. Audre Lorde, "Zami: A Biomythography"
This poet was so iconoclastic she had to invent a genre for her autobiography: part lesbian/feminist manifesto, part social history of Harlem in the 1950s, part meditation on memory and imagination in the tradition of Nabokov’s "Speak, Memory."
5. Vladimir Nabokov, "Speak, Memory"
A gripping and obscenely articulate account of the development of a consciousness.
6. Herta Muller, "The Land of Green Plums", and Alta Ifland, "Elegy for a Fabulous World"
A novel and a collection of stories about life in Communist Romania (Ifland’s book is set in a Romania, thinly disguised as Ukraine) under Nicolae Ceausescu. Muller won the Nobel Prize last year, and "Elegy" is Ifland’s exciting debut.
7. Julie Orringer, "The Invisible Bridge"
At 600 pages, Julie Orringer’s epic novel about the fate of Hungarian Jews in World War II seems like a great commitment. Reading it is more like a summer fling--intense, consuming, informative, swift-feeling. It’s an all-night book that left this reader in a tangle of sheets, exhausted, depressed, and satisfied.This is an important novel, in the tradition of Sheila Kohler's "Children of Pithiviers," Edie Meidav's "Crawl Space," and Irene Nemerovsky’s autobiographical novels--but more documentary in scope with its combustion of research, imagination and compassionate channeling.
8. Lydia Davis, "The Collected Stories"
An extremely long collection of extremely short stories (sometimes disguised as prose poems or essays) by a master of atmospheric pressure and compression.
9. David Foster Wallace, "Infinite Jest"
At 1,079, pages this huge, mind-bending novel by the late DFW is no joke. Philosophical, exuberantly virtuosic and compulsively iconoclastic, this demanding tome about the fragmentation of the American attention span may not be the best place to start for those new to the Wallace oeuvre (I’d try "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" or "Girl with Curious Hair"). But when else will you have time to swim in such a wide sea of prose?