As usual at this time of the year, the New York Times Book Review asked an assortment of literati what they are reading during the summer. It is a question always guaranteed to produce the most divided responses.
One feels a tug toward the relaxed, even the supine: entertainments, thrillers -- what used to be called hammock reading. But at the other extreme -- the extreme most likely to speak up to New York Times Book Review editors -- there is the bracing sound of classics in the balmy air. Dostoevsky, Chateaubriand, Paul Valery, Francine du Plessix Gray has promised herself. Heat wave or no heat wave, Tom Wolfe is also going to devote himself to the Right Stuff -- Flaubert, Trollope, George Eliot. One respondent has declared himself absolutely wild to read John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi."
The general effect is of diners ordering bean-sprout salad while their eyes bulge toward the dessert tray.
Summer vacation does this to people. We find ourselves polarized between some prospect of pure self-indulgence and a regular binge of self-improvement -- working harder than we have worked all year.
Even the favorite stereotypes of vacation -- seashore and mountain -- express this contradiction. One lies motionless on a beach, a case of sunbaked vegetable. Or one climbs the most precipitous face of the tallest available peak.
Should a vacation be treated as suspended animation or as a second career? Is the idea to feel blissfully useless or defiantly useful?
A lot of vacationeers keep switching their answers. One off-and-on puritan we know luxuriates during his winter week in the most sybaritic of Caribbean resorts, then in the summer exiles himself to a log cabin on a rocky Maine island where, along with other business executives, he pays through his blue nose for the privilege of roughing it: no electricity, no running water, and -- worst hardship of all -- no telephone.
Vacation brings everybody face to face with a general confusion about work and play.
If one had a true vocation, would one want a vacation?
On the other hand, if one found the ideal vacation, would one need a vocation?
And so one vacationeer heads for the airport, as if clutching a ticket for the Garden of Eden, while another holds onto visas and passport as if they were admission papers to an adult education program.
There is almost no way to avoid doing either too much or too little with a vacation, under the impression that it is either an annual golden opportunity -- our Big Break -- or just an interval for recuperation: a work break.
No wonder so many vacations tend to reverse pattern.A couple of unforeseen incidents and the vacationeer who has scheduled every move since February relaxes into a little serendipity. Meanwhile, the vacationeer who has hit the road to anywhere begins, day by day, to plot a bit of structure into the chaos.
At the earnest but fun-loving heart of our perplexity lies the awareness that every vacation, to some extent, is an illusion. "If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work," Shakespeare wrote in "Henry IV," his portrait of a playboy who found his vocation.
In some part of our holidaying heads, as we leave for the Parthenon or the Himalayas or just the back garden, we sense that life should be whole and seamless, with play and work as one.
But we figure it would take at least two vacations to puzzle the business out. And we know of this absolutely idyllic lake, and we've got our suitcases to pack. We'll really explore the matter, starting next summer, when we're also going to read Proust in the original, in case the New York Times Book Review is interested.