Five Odd Books for Summer Reading

Books aren't dead as a means of entertainment; they're only hiding.

WHY I SELECTED THESE PARTICULAR books to write about is a mystery to me. My original idea was that
between best seller charts on the one hand and literary classics on the other, there exists a vast
territory of very good books which are not so much unknown as ignored. All five of these selections
come from that vast territory, but I make no claim that they are the “best” of anything. On another
day, one with the sun casting different shadows on my desk and the neighbors shouting different
epithets out their windows, I would have made a different selection. The possibilities were
endless. I shall, therefore, countenance no objections that begin, “But you should have included…” If there are books you would rather read this summer, go right ahead. You’ll get no argument
from me.

The Benchley Roundup, by Robert Benchley, edited by Nathaniel Benchley

I became a confirmed Benchley fan when I discovered in an anthology one of his essays that
began, “Paris! Ah, what magic lies in those words.” His work, like that of Thurber and Perelman, is
still funny today not only because it’s funny (There isn’t much critical vocabulary for humor;
funny is funny and not funny is not funny and that’s about all there is to it.) but also because
Benchley has a point of view that is his own. He is a man who finds concentration difficult, travel
of doubtful benefit, family living a major inconvenience, high-toned discussions of art fruitless,
and starched shirts a major obstacle to civilized living. In fact Benchley finds the world an
almost unliveable place, a state of affairs which leaves him wistful but not bitter:

“A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and
still keep looking so dissipated…The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency…is a
simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have
refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up
again pretty soon.

“The psychological principle is this: Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the
work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell

This novel runs something more than 2000 pages and invites, needless to say, readers who have
the time to wallow in a deep chair for days on end and just read. It is organized into a series of
shorter novels, most of them less than 200 pages, narrated by the same man and dealing with the
disorganized lives and strange peregrinations of an immense cast of characters. “The result,” as
Powell’s narrator informs us early on, “is a general tendency for things to be brought to the level
of farce even when the theme is serious enough.” For Powell’s theme is life itself. His novel, the
result of years of planning and more years of dedicated work, comes closer to capturing the strange
matrix of experiences and human associations across the long rhythms of time than any other book I know.

Listen to his sentences: “Sandals worn over black socks gave an authentically medieval air to
his extremities.” “His whole life seemed so irrevocably concentrated on debutante dances that it
was impossible to imagine Archie Gilbert finding any tolerable existence outside a tail-coat.”
These characters play their part, then, perhaps, disappear not to reappear for 500 pages. Then we
find them involved in a new circle of associates who may or may not have played a part in past
chapters or future follies. All of this without surrealist mumbo jumbo, forced melodrama, or,
incredible as it may seem, confusion of character or plot. The novel is, as the title proclaims, a
slow dance to time’s silent but insistent music:

“For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin
suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that, before we really know where we
are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change
has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”

Digging Up the Past, by Sir Leonard Woolley

This is a very short book, less than 150 pages; but it is one of those rare treasures, a book
which unconsciously becomes something more than it needed or was intended to be. Its primary
purpose is to explain exactly what a field archeologist does: how he selects a site for excavation,
how he plots out the digging and organizes his labor force, how he identifies and dates objects the
digging turns up, and how he studies those objects in order to reach conclusions about the
civilization he is investigating. While revealing all that, Sir Leonard reveals something of
himself as well. It takes great imagination to be a good archeologist—he must be as much
novelist as scientist—and the inner workings of that imagination shine through between the
lines of this absorbing little book:

“The robbers had simply…burrowed a hole through into the chamber, a hole, perhaps, only big
enough for a man to put his arm through…We, entering by the door 2000 years later, would find
everything apparently undisturbed; the painted clay vases, the bronze bowls, the glass bottles, and
toilet box of wood inlaid with ivory were all in their places, the body stretched out orderly and
in peace. Then one would see, beyond the head, the jagged hole in the wall of grey mud; two or
three fallen beads by the neck would show how the string had been snapped and the necklace snatched
away; the right arm might have been bent up and back and a finger torn off for the sake of a gold ring.”

Blood Sport, by Dick Francis

Before he began to write seriously, Dick Francis was a jockey in England and a good enough one
to be retained as top rider for the Queen’s stables. In the late Fifties, worried that a spill
might aggravate old injuries and cause him permanent harm, Francis hung up his silks and turned to
making a living by the pen. Racing’s loss has been reading’s gain.

Dick Francis writes thrillers, which is not to say his books are inconsequential. His

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