What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Highly Idiosyncratic Summer Reading List

Everyone seems to be doing it. By "it", I mean, of course, that everyone is out there eagerly crafting their lists of books recommended for summer reading. And no, it's not just the blogosphere: JP Morgan's private bankers have their own list for their uber-wealthy clients (featuring Caroline Kennedy's poetry collection -- meh -- and Stacey Schiff's excellent biography of Cleopatra) and so does retail chain Anthropologie (they're pushing Swamplandia, which I admit I found over-hyped -- but more of that in another post.)

So, even though I can hear my grandmother's voice ringing in my ear -- "If (insert name of friend here) jumped off a bridge, would you just jump off right after them??" -- I'll join the parade. But I'm not going to focus on books with lotsa buzz, or even necessarily on new releases. I'll just pick a few books that are close to the top of my mind, some of which I read last month; others I may have read for the first time as a teenager. The only thing they have in common is that they all stick in the mind in some way: they are books that don't demand a heck of a lot of bandwidth to read (and who wants to think too hard about what they are reading when the mercury creeps toward 90 F?) but that will grab and hold your attention.

  1. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. The first of four mystery novels featuring Jackson Brodie that I read this year; I'm now waiting eagerly for the British DVD series to arrive. Brodie is a cynical private detective who finds himself caught up in a few related mysteries. Excellent.
  2. Strawberry Fields by Marina Lewycka: I know this isn't the novel for which the author is best known, but I relished this story of the misadventures of a motley bunch of migrant workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, working in the fields and factories of England. Fab.
  3. Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy: An overlooked gem of a book; the story of how one woman comes to understand her family's history as she finally forces herself to clear out the possessions accumulated by her ancestors. How people intersect with history.
  4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: If you haven't read this popular classic yet, shame on you! How can anyone not want to solve the mystery of the first Mrs. de Winter? And you'll never meet a creepier character than Mrs. Danvers. I first read this in the hot summer of 1976.
  5. Sister by Rosamund Lupton: A new book that reminded me of Rebecca in its eerie tone and plot. A woman flies home to London when her sister vanishes; the story has one of the best twists imaginable in its final pages.
  6. Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Excellent narrative of the corruption at the heart of the antiquities trade, and how that jeopardized the fate of America's richest museum. One of the best art world books I've read yet.
  7. Blood River by Tim Butcher: So you think you're hot? Read this travel saga by a journalist dumb enough to try to follow in the footsteps of Henry Stanley (of "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" fame) through the Congo and you'll know what hot and sticky is really like!
  8. Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker: If Peter Mayles were better at writing novels, this is the kind of book he'd produce. Best of all, the author doesn't pander to nostalgia -- the crimes Bruno confronts are very 21st century. One of my faves from last year.
  9. The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: The first book in a series featuring Laos's only coroner in 1975 -- he also just happens to be the reincarnation of a spirit. Cotterill has a deft hand when crafting eccentric characters and gripping plots.
  10. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: The classic first volume of what Fermor planned to be a trilogy about his 1930s trip on foot from Holland to Constantinople. After Fermor's recent death, we're waiting to see if volume 3 will make it into print...
  11. China Court by Rumer Godden: The most overlooked among my favorites by this author (others include The Greengage Summer). It's a different kind of tale, but I love the way she blends generations and stories.
  12. A Place of Execution by Val McDermid: I watched the televised version of this, and then went back to read the book to remind myself how truly, deeply chilling this suspense story is. Best of all, McDermid pulls it off with a low body count. The suspense is all in the characters & story.
  13. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Laugh, chortle, rejoice -- the author has pulled off something wonderful in this little novella about the impact that discovering books has on the Queen of England.
  14. Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe: On a more sober note, a young Burmese from the tribal lands discovers English literature -- and then decides to flee his country to study in England. A few years old now, but a wonderful story. 
  15. Defining the World by Henry Hitchings: The story of how Dr. Johnson came up with his dictionary -- an imaginative format, a narrative characterized by wit and insight; scholarly but not at all oppressive.
As for the books that I'll be spending my summer reading, well, you'll have to wait and see: I'll be posting that list on July 4!


  1. Since you brought up Kate Atkinson and since I've already read and loved Case Histories I am now going to pledge to get to the next two books, which are on my shelf, this summer. That's a great list BTW.

  2. I actually own three of these.....the Bennett, the McDermid, and of course, REBECCA.....I haven't read any of Atkinson's mysteries, but dearly love(d) BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM, and HUMAN CROQUET. The rest will dutifully go on THE LIST...where they may pout away...waiting their turn(s)

    My Summer Reading is usually what's "left over" from the rest of the year...with a little "fluff" thrown in for comic relief.

  3. You just suggested my next read: Sister! THANK YOU! I've been in a rut after two disappointments that I left unfinished.