Summer Reading Suggestions (July 22, 2004)

News of a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts which shows a decline in reading among all groups of Americans, in every region and at every educational level, raises many questions including what the role of literature is in our contemporary world. Andrew Solomon, the author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression" wrote an op-ed piece The Closing of the American Book which appeared in the IHT and the NYT. Solomon raises very interesting reasons why this survey needs to be taken seriously, among them:

Readers are active, while non-readers – more than half the population – have settled into apathy.

Reading is not an active expression like writing, but it is not a passive experience either. It requires effort and concentration. In exchange, it offers stimulation and the fruit of thought and feeling.

Kafka said, "A book must be an ice axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul."

You are what you read. If you read nothing, then your mind withers, and your ideals lose their vitality and sway.

For those summer days where life might be a bit slower and allow time for serious reading, here are four suggestions:

Where She Came From
A Daughter's Search For Her Mother's History
by Helen Epstein
Published by Little, Brown and Company in 1997

Ms. Epstein quotes Virginia Woolf , "We think back through our mothers if we are women," as an introduction to her memoir. After the death of her mother, a Holocaust survivor, she sets out to research and reconstruct the lives of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. This is no easy task since family documents were destroyed in the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Her quest takes her to Czechoslovakia, Austria and Israel to search out material in libraries and archives. The result is a book that not only pieces together an account of three lives, but provides a remarkable report on the social history of Central European Jews. A definite "must read" on many levels, it is the search for one's roots vividly written and excellently researched.

To Destroy a City
Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in World War II
by Hermann Knell
Published by Da Capo Press in 2003

Much has been written about the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis in Europe and the United States. One of the two main German public TV stations, Das Erste (ARD), has been presenting a series of different documentaries on various aspects of WW II this summer. This week a series has been devoted to Officers Against Hitler, which portray those officers, one of whom was Claus Graf Stauffenberg, who tried to rid Germany of Hitler on July 20, 1944. In early July Der Bombenkrieg, a three part series on the massive bombing of German cities, was shown with detailed accounts, interviews and film material from German and Allied archives. A 260 page book to this series has been published by Christoph Links Verlag – Links Druck in German. Der Bombenkrieg 1939-1945 by Rolf-Dieter Mueller.

Herman Knell, who emigrated to Canada after the war, was 19 and living in Wuerzburg in March 1945 when it was bombed very heavily by Allied planes (92% of the city's structures were destroyed in one night), has spent years researching the history, development and effects of the strategy of area bombing. He writes in his preface There is a psychological need to forget and a moral obligation to remember. There is a human desire to forgive and the ethical necessity to warn of a possible repeat of the disaster……Either condemn it and have the courage to pronounce the perpetrators of it, politicians and military, guilty, or accept it as a fact of modern war, inhuman but unavoidable.

The Time of Our Singing
by Richard Powers
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2003

An epic novel on race, family and identity, steeped in an amazing comprehension of classical music with a subtext on the nature of time, this book is a multifaceted attempt to portray post-WW II America. At the 1939 Marion Anderson open-air concert in Washington, DC, a young black American woman, an aspiring singer, and a German-Jewish émigré physicist meet, fall in love, and marry. The reader is confronted with their marriage and their three children in an America riveted by its confrontation with such a family on the personal level and the looming Civil Rights movement on the national one. A challenging work, not for the light-of-heart.

The Weather in Berlin
by Ward Just
Published by Houghton Mifflin Co. in 2002

An aging, once famous Hollywood director escapes to post-Wall Berlin for a three month stay. His encounters with another cultural climate help him reconnect to his own imagination. An interesting meeting of old Hollywood and new Europe, this is good beach reading material.

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