I like very few things more than making lists and buying books, so instead of one summer reading list, I’m going to have three. We’ll kick things off with non-fiction, mostly because I think fiction is getting a little arrogant, always coming first. And also because I don’t yet have many of the books for the genre list, as my tastes are a tiny bit too niche for Brussels Waterstones.
As always, I’m not making any promises about getting through every single thing here – it’s more an inspiration than a rigid TBR. I hope to read a good chunk of this pile, though, unless work gets totally horrendous (which it probably will, but there might be some respite in August). Anyway, here are the books of the Estonian jury:
1. Superhero-Related Historical Epicness: Amazons by John Man. With his deep interest in Mongols, Central Asia and the history of communication, Man is a man after my own heart (pun originally not intended, but then gladly kept). And now he’s doing Amazons – ancient warrior women from the steppes. I cannot think of more appropriate reading for the summer of Wonder Woman.
2. Philosophy, But Bearable: At the Existential Cafe by Sarah Bakewell. This is a bit of a cheat, as the list should only contain books I haven’t read and I’ve already started this one. I wanted to include it, however, as I’m very impressed so far. It seems a great fit if you are someone who kind of wants to know more about the existentialists, but don’t really like them that much. There is zero pretentiousness that I tend to associate with French philosophers, only intelligence and readability. That might have something to do with the fact that the author herself isn’t a French philosopher.
3. The Controversial One: The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy. People love to hate Levy’s book about her privileged but cool life falling apart. There are those who genuinely love it, though, and I’m curious. The praise for her style is almost universal and I’m interested in her take of “having it all” (or otherwise). I expect it to be equal parts brilliant and frustrating.
4. The Obscure Masterpiece: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. I’m going to come clean right away and confess that this is the most likely candidate for remaining unread this summer. First, it’s so long, and second, I feel I want to read it before going to the Balkans (definitely not happening this year). I wanted to give this book a shout-out, as it’s quite amazing that a 1000 page travel/history book about Yugoslavia written before the World War II by a woman novelist seems to be universally admired by everyone who has read it. Some of those people are very difficult to please.
5. Japan Throwback: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. After reading Lost Japan and The World of the Shining Prince (both highly recommended) when visiting Japan last year, I was looking for something in the same vein. This classic book by Benedict about Japanese culture and character kept coming up, but I could not find it anywhere. I have it now.
6. The One People Will Proudly Carry Around and Leave Casually on the Table in Cafes: Homo Deus by Yval Noah Harari. I have not read Harari’s much-praised Sapiens, although I own it and it sounds exactly like my kind of book (history of humankind!). Why? Because Kate, who is infinitely better than me both at critical thought and applying eyeshadow accused it of a “totally uncritical everything-and-the-kitchen-sink bombastic macho Big History approach”. I’m pretty convinced she is right and everyone else is just being too enthusiastic, but I still kind of want to read it. So I’ve compromised by deciding to read Homo Deus (future of mankind!) instead. It makes sense in my head.
7. Non-Superhero Related History: Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. I still remember learning that the wealth of Estonian peasants in the 19th century was directly connected to the American Civil War: as cotton disappeared from the European markets, homegrown flax shot up in price. Beckert’s history of cotton is not only a history of cotton, but also a history of capitalism. Although I would still be interested if it was just the first.
8. The Mandatory Middle East Entry: A Line in the Sand by James Barr. I get unreasonably excited by books about the history of the Middle East, especially the ones not focussed on Israel-Palestine. The only downside of those books is that I’ll get extremely angry at the Brits and the French, so A Line in the Sand is going to be a tough one for me. By all accounts, it’s excellent, but it also focuses on how the Bs and the Fs divided the region between them. I foresee much indignation.
9. A Book by an Intelligent Woman: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I kid, of course. Most of the books on this list are by intelligent women – a few are by intelligent men. There is, however, a special type of intelligent woman; someone for whom being an intelligent woman is basically a profession. I’m thinking of people like Maggie Nelson or Olivia Laing (I recommend their books, too, especially The Lonely City by the latter). As the intellectual mother of the term “mansplaining”, I think Solnit deserves a special place in this group. I liked her “Men Explain Things to Me” a lot and thought it’s time to read something else by her.
10. The Mandatory Central Asia Entry: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk. Displaying remarkable cunning, I’ve managed to get two books about Central Asia on this list (as this is where the Amazons lived). I’m obsessed with the region and the Silk Road and although I found Hopkirk’s The Great Game somewhat stereotypical, it was a lot of fun. Hence this.
11. Lazy Point-Scoring: South and West by Joan Didion. The shameful truth is that I have never read anything by Didion. The short-term solution to this is to read South and West that contains bits of her diary. This being Didion, we’ll get not just a diary, but an insightful look at America. I’m well aware, though, that this will not replace reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Year of Magical Thinking.
12. SCIENCE! Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I have probably read every book in the Physics/Cosmos for Dummies category – I’m nothing if not optimistic. Tyson’s version is wonderful and yes, I’m cheating again, as I’ve already finished it. In my defence, I had not yet started the book when I took the photo yesterday, so that should tell you something about how easy it is to read. Does exactly what it says on the tin and does it very well.
13. The Relaxing Reread: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This book is here mostly because there is a new series about the family out and a new book about the Durrells in Corfu, called, creatively, The Durrells in Corfu. I planned to buy and read the latter and then thought it would be great to reread the original book – I loved it as a child and reread it obsessively. Somehow, I ended up only buying My Family and Other Animals and forgetting to get The Durrells in Corfu. So I will remain – at least for a bit – in ignorance of how much of it was actually true.
Do you plan to read any non-fiction this summer? Let me know.