This summer has been the wackiest summer I think any of us has ever experienced. Thanks to COVID-19, all sorts of “are you kidding me?” things have become normal day-to-day occurrences. It took a while, but it looks like we finally have gotten used to the mask wearing thing. I know I reached a new high (or maybe a new low) when I actually looked at a mask a person was wearing and thought “Oh, that’s cute.” Even weirder was when I said out loud to the TV screen while watching the news, “No, that is not a good look on you.” (Seriously. I’m embarrassed to admit I was complaining that the mask did not match the reporter’s outfit.) I’ve discovered drive-up windows for wine. (I hope that, at least, is permanent.) I’ve learned how to size up a restaurant and make a quick judgment on whether it feels safe to eat there. And I’ve learned how to not hug people.
Given how crazy the world is, as I’m preparing to go back to university life in a few days, I took time this summer to read books that swept me away from 2020. While I appreciate why others are drawn to breezy summer beach reads, my fantasy reading this summer has been looking back to a world that was better off than our world today.
Or so I thought.
I started with Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. I have loved every single Meacham book I’ve encountered. I simply do not understand how he writes as much as he does. It’s like he turns his head and coughs—and out pops an incredibly well-researched, impeccably written tome. It’s impressive.
As you know, since starting my sabbatical way back in 2014, I’ve been reading presidential biographies. I don’t read them in any particular order, which would explain why I’m only getting to Jefferson now. In past posts, I’ve mentioned how surprised I always am to uncover just how little I know about our presidents and the historical times in which they lived. However, Jefferson is one of those well-known heroes. Founding Fathers and all that jazz. I thought I knew him. Whew. The country was even more screwed up back then than I thought. I mean really and truly fraught with political division. Jefferson wasn’t sure the republic would survive. I was surprised to learn that I agreed with some of Jefferson’s decisions, but vehemently disagreed with others. (And I’m not even talking about his reprehensible ideas concerning slavery.) Wow. A flawed human. But, very presidential.
I moved from presidents to an in-depth view of everything—and I mean everything—in the kitchen. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork was a revelation. Talk about getting down in the weeds. This book dealt with every possible item that shows up in the kitchen. You don’t just learn about what the item does. You learn about the entire history of the item. Fork tines? Well. Turns out the number of tines told the whole story about a person’s status. The fork chapter just broke the surface. Egg beaters. Ice. Graters. Ovens! (Now the oven chapter was particularly fascinating. It’s a miracle that any cook survived the early years of the oven.)
After spending so much reading time in the kitchen, I needed to know more about the whole house. So that took me to Bill Bryson’s At Home. Sort of like the Fork book, but through a room-by-room meandering journey. Bryson doesn’t just stick with items in a particular room like the kitchen. He branches out and offers an in-depth look at everything that could possibly be associated with that room. The bedroom chapter, for example, moves deftly from the history of mattresses (it’s a wonder anyone could sleep “back then”) to the development of plumbing. I happened to get to the plumbing part just as the hubster and I were struggling with putting in the rough plumbing in our Carriage House. Apparently even in the old days, people had difficulty getting the direction of the plumbing right.
After reading about houses—while working on the restoration of our own house—I decided to move on to my other passion (some might say “obsession.”). Italy. I lingered, savored, absorbed, and utterly adored Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. This book made me miss Italy even more than I did when I discovered my May trip was cancelled. The book also gave me hope that Italy will be waiting for me when I am able to return. And it got me off my language butt to get back into studying Italian.
I rounded out my summer reading with Wine and War, a fascinating look at the role that wine had in France’s resistance efforts against the Nazis. For as beautifully written as Four Seasons was, this book is a bit over-written and clunky. But still. It’s about wine. And how wine helped us win the war so what’s not to love?
Sadly, my reading now is more along the lines of frantic bursts of “Will this work?” for the classes I’m teaching starting in just a few days. (Please don’t tell the students that I haven’t found all the readings to go with the lectures. I also don’t have all the lectures yet, but that’s another story.)
As I prepare for the beginning of the fall semester, I can look back on the summer for all its Pandemic uncertainty and all its muscle-exhausting Carriage House renovations, and be thankful that good books surrounded me (thanks to Marcie Hinton’s willingness to share from her library). As Victor Hugo wrote, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” Lord knows we have trouble right here in River City (and elsewhere). But reading about troubled times when our country was so young, or when the French had to use their wine to outsmart the Germans, or when tin cans for food preservation were invented before a decent can opener, I realized yet again that the world is tremendously large, history is long, and humans, though at times, are incredibly horrible beings, we are also resilient. Dickens was right. It truly is the best of times and the worst of times. Reading reminds me that we have hope. Abbiamo Speranza. Tutto andra’ bene!