Summer Reading (Part II)

When it comes to serious reading, I prefer hardcovers. Paperbacks don't look or feel as good, and often they're made from cheap acidic paper. Also, if you are mad at someone, you can throw a hardcover across the room without getting up from the sofa and make your point. And a good book, like a good movie, is something you will likely want to revisit.

The biggest problem with reading is finding time for it, and that's one of the reasons I love flying and lonely business travel to fine hotels. The tough thing is deciding how many books to take along. Especially if you're going on vacation. Being fundamentally impractical, though not stupid, I usually don't come back with more than two books I haven't touched. And when I do, it's often because when I got to wherever I was going I didn't want to read that book as much anymore. Like I schlepped Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter to the Caribbean but, once there, I didn't want to read it (it was about a place even hotter than where I was, and I was hot enough). And sometimes you're going on a trip and you take along something serious that you feel like you should have read, like maybe The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. I can't tell you how many times I've packed those little Penguin Classics, only to find myself dozing off. For successful reading vacations you need books that fit with the fantasy of where you're going.


Ancient history is wonderfully diverting. I am particularly fond of Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves, which documents the lives of the twelve Roman emperors who ruled during the second century, from Julius Caesar, who was murdered, to Domitian, who was also murdered. Most of the rest died violently: Caligula (assassinated by his guards); Claudius (poisoned, probably by his wife); Nero (a suicide before he could be arrested); Otho (a suicide after he discovered a plot against him); Vitellius (killed by a mob); Titus (poisoned). It's great stuff, and I find myself reading it again and again. It certainly makes the presidencies I have experienced—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and the Bushs—seem somewhat less lurid.

Robert Graves

One of my favorite writers to take on vacation is Robert Graves, a distinguished poet and scholar who also managed to write novels you just can't put down. My favorite is probably his two-part epic, I, Claudius, and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, which is written in the first person as if by Claudius himself, and which served as the model for the wonderful 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius, which is available on DVD. Derek Jacobi is fantastic as Claudius, Sian Phillips (Mrs. Peter O’Toole) is amazing as the evil Livia, widow of Augustus, and John Hurt is a Caligula that will almost make you forget Malcolm McDowell. I am currently in a rereading of I, Claudius which will probably be accompanied by a rerun of the whole series.

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It’s Patrick Stewart with hair, as Sejanus in the BBC’s series I, Claudius.

Graves was a glamorous figure, who lived in Mallorca and was devoted to the revival of goddess worship, and his scholarly study of that increasingly popular idea, The White Goddess, is a classic. Appropriately, he was very good friends with Ava Gardner. And one of his more diverting novels, Homer’s Daughter, is devoted to the thesis that The Odyssey was not actually written by Homer but by a Greek woman living in Sicily when that region was known as Magna Grecia. It’s much more action-packed than it sounds.

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For classical action you can’t beat Hercules My Shipmate or The Golden Fleece, which treats the story of Jason and the Argonauts as historical fact—and finds Hercules, who would wind up a god, the most interesting of the Argo’s crew on its mission to recover the Golden Fleece.

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Graves’s 1938 novel Count Belisarius is also a terrific adventure, being the story of one of the great military geniuses (he served the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium in the sixth century) expanding the empire almost by half, taking Carthage and seizing Sicily and Italy back from the Goths. This novel is rather novel in that it is written from the POV of a eunuch in service to the general’s rather monstrous wife, Antonia. It’s a page-turner that is as educational as it is exciting.

Once you’ve gotten through Graves—and that’s a serious task, what with King Jesus, a fantastic reconstruction of a historical Jesus (Mel Gibson, eat your heart out, or let the Mayans do it for you); Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, a stunning evocation of the American Revolution; and The Story of Marie Powell: Wife to Mr. Milton (another exquisitely lively rendering of a time long gone)—you can always let Mr. Gore Vidal pick up the thread.

But that’s probably another entry.

Summer Reading (Part I)

One of the best ways to fight depression in its various forms is to pick up a book.

Reading is cheap. It’s basically cheaper than almost any other form of entertainment (except maybe whistling), because if you’re really broke you can get a library card and do it for free. And reading is not only free but time-consuming, so the more you read, the less time you have to spend money. It’s an easy way to spend hours and hours that just seem to float by blissfully, taking you far, far away from the anxiety that is encouraged by other alleged forms of relaxation, such as video games and television.

If you want to relax you have to get as far away from the breaking stories as possible. Which is hard now when you get into a cab and suddenly there's the Eyewitness News Team filling you in on the news. But trust me, breaking stories are like waves. They are all different, but basically all the same. And they cause erosion. Except it’s not the beach, it’s your brain. But reading can take you far from all that breakage, back into stories that are unbreakable. A good novel or history can easily transport the reader into a world that is vastly interesting and entertaining but which actually may challenge some of the more grim assumptions enforced by a diet of “pop culture.” If you want to change the world, start with your own world, which you can change by imagining another one. And you can imagine another one because someone has already created it.

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Here’s a stack in the bedroom in my country house that will definitely transport you to another world. Mostly the world of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu in the novels of Sax Rohmer, in which Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, who are as amusing in their own way as Holmes and Watson, fight the insidious Asian as he attempts to drive back the white man. The Sinophobia is spectacular, even though, as we all know now, the Chinese are not out to conquer the world.

Anyway, if the news has got you down and the high pressure of conspicuous consumption enforced by the fashion magazines has got you worried that you can’t keep up with the times, forget the times and try the first century for a while. It has just as much action, adventure, lust, betrayal, tragedy, and triumph as our times, often more, and you don’t have to do anything about it. There’s a whole other world back there in the past, just waiting to fascinate and divert.

At one point reading became an expensive habit for me, because I don’t just love reading, I love books, and I started collecting them. Not only was that expensive at times, but at one point they start competing with the furniture for space. But things have gotten better, even for the bibliophile. One great thing about the Internet is that it changed the nature of book collecting. I still go to book fairs, but now I usually have someone on the other end of the cell phone to go to the great bookselling sites to compare prices. And while it’s lovely to ogle and handle books, I almost always buy them online now.

Thanks to the Internet you can now find almost any book at an affordable price. (Except those rarities that were published only in very limited editions.) I often shop with Alibris, but the site that usually offers the most comprehensive selection is ABE Books. There are exceptions of course. Like Wyndham Lewis’s Doom of Youth is gonna set you back a C note no matter how you look at it, Same with Ted Berrigan’s A Feeling for Leaving, but what do you expect? They only printed 400 of them. Richard Brautigan’s Would You Like to Saddle Up a Couple of Goldfish and Swim to Alaska? That’s going to be several hundred bucks. I’m so glad I sold all my GM stock and put it into the New York School Poets. But most books can be had pretty cheap if you’re not that choosy. If you’re willing to settle for an ex-library copy you can pick up most hardcovers for a song.

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Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz

By the way, don’t think poetry is for squares. Au contraire. One of the fastest ways I know to acquire a New York State of Mind is by reading the New York School poets: Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Bernadette Myers, Ted Berrigan. To name a few. Get a copy of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and/or Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Contained there are good reasons why many of us moved to New York City.