Perhaps because I’m the president of a college where we read and study some of the greatest books ever written, I’m often asked what I have on my summer reading list. I suspect people wonder whether I ever read the sort of light literature that is so popular in the summertime and on vacations, or whether it’s all heavy classics all the time.
Actually, I’m pretty sure that when people ask college presidents about their summer reading, they’re hoping to hear about our guilty literary pleasures. Mine are extensive and include every new offering from C. J. Box, John Sanford, Alafair Burke, Donna Leon, Henning Mankell, Philip Margolin, Lee Child, Jo Nesbo, Mo Hayder, Dick and Felix Francis, Val McDermid, Ridley Pearson, and Michael Connolly, just as they used to include P. D. James, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Louis L’Amour, and Tony Hillerman.
It’s refreshing and therapeutic to relax our minds when our schedules allow it, and taking up some escape reading certainly fills the bill.
But a vacation also affords us the luxury to spend some time with “heavier” reading during the summer. Fewer demands mean a bit more time to digest what we read, to ruminate on familiar and unfamiliar ideas, and to stretch our imaginations by following great thinkers on their journeys of discovery.
During the past academic year, students and colleagues have joined me in a multi-year, once-a-week study group as we make our way through all of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. For centuries, Plutarch’s biographical sketches were required reading for schoolchildren and scholars, not least because of the reflections they inspire about developing character and the conduct of life.
So this summer, in addition to my usual lighter fare, I intend to reread George Elliot’s Middlemarch and parts of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics in light of Plutarch’s focus on character. Middlemarch is a masterful study of character development, as its protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, grows from a girl enthusiastically devoted to huge, impersonal social projects into a mature woman dedicated to the individual love and personal attention that makes a real difference in people’s lives. And I want to see whether Aristotle’s general descriptions of virtue in the Ethics can provide a practical framework for the different approaches to life exemplified by Plutarch’s subjects—and, by extension, for the rest of us. In particular, for instance, I wonder if Pericles, the prominent Athenian general, statesman and orator, is an example of Aristotle’s great-souled man, and if such a character is worth emulating, since it seems nearly incapable of enjoying the finest elements of friendship.
I’ll also be returning to Homer’s Iliad—the first reading of our Executive Seminar program this coming September—a book I’ve read and reread with pleasure since I was thirteen years old. When I was young I read it for love of honor, glory and heroic virtues. Now I am much more interested in the damage war does to the human soul. What help is needed by a warrior who is trying to return to civil society after he has been consumed by the fury of battle?
And I’ll also be delving into two books that are new to me: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, the author’s story of how she conquered depression following her father’s death by resolving to train a goshawk—a notoriously untrainable bird of prey—and how she experienced the wildness within her through sharing the hunt with her raptor.
So that’s what’s on my reading table for this summer. I’d be interested to know what’s on yours.