Sunday, August 18, 2013

For Pleasure: Spring and Summer 2013

My major spring project was reading all twelve of the novels by Robert Heinlein in his Scribners series of juvenile science fiction.  I write more about them here.  These were originally published from 1947 to 1958.  Though I recall the Winston Science Fiction series from my youthful library prowling, I may well have read some of these in my teen years, since our public library held on to their books.  And though this spate of reading began with a library reject of the final novel in the series, I also found earlier ones in a university library's children's section, in their first editions.

Of this series Heinlein said somewhat slyly, " books for boys differ only slightly from my books for adults--the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew, and don't mind big words--and the boy's books are slightly limited by taboos and conventions imposed by their elders."  That discipline turned out to be good for Heinlein's writing actually.

After I finished these, I read several of Heinlein's stories in his "future history" series, collected in The Past Through Tomorrow (1967.)  The consistent future universe of these stories is pretty much the same as in the juvenile novels.

I read H.G. Wells novel Tono-Bungay, a first person account of the rise and fall of a great commercial venture based on a popular tonic that basically does nothing.  An early (1908) and lively fictional analysis of the advertising-driven consumer economy that became so predominant in the second half of the 20th century. I continue to be impressed by Wells as a wordsmith, and in this novel he is actively inventing a way to tell the story he wants to tell by expanding at least the rhetorically reach of the novel, and a little of the form.  Perhaps in the light of Dickens etc. and the amazingly predatory practices of the 19th century (when for example much of the forests of Europe and America were finally cut down) it shouldn't be surprising that the rhetoric of Wells' narrator in 1908 sounds so contemporary a theme:  "It is all one spectacle of forces running to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever..."

Other reading was in connection with projects or new books.  I've already written here about re-reading Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.  I investigated several books about World Fairs, and carefully read an unusual one: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter.  This combines journalistic research (presented as such) on the 1939 New York World's Fair, the famous "Building the World of Tomorrow" extravaganza, wrapped around a central love story that is fictional but (the author says) based pretty closely on fact.  Both stories are interesting--the fair and the affair--but I didn't get a sense of each being dependent on the other.  A hybrid that I enjoyed, even if I didn't see how it quite makes a whole.  It also led me to E.L. Doctorow's novel World's Fair which I've begun.

But apart from the very valuable sense of texture about the Fair, Gelernter's point of view on its utopian aspects (he concludes that we have no more utopias because by the 1960s we were living in the one the Fair proposed--namely, prosperity and suburbia) and particularly his evocation of the 1930s (especially the later years, the "high thirties") and what makes them unique, is strongly expressed, pretty convincing and certainly memorable.

Since this Fair and its historical context was my main interest, I read more about the thirties, particularly the account of the world situation and the 1936 U.S. presidential election in one of my favorite references, William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream.   (I still have the two volume deep blue covered hardbacks I bought for 10 cents each at a library sale in the early 80s.)  This led happily to a new book, Susan Dunn's 1940, which I write about in the post just previous to this one.  Dunn's book--and her particular praise for the playwright and FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood--led me to a book I am currently reading, Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins.  Most of this book concerns the World War II years, so it follows nicely from this previous reading.  (I'm also planning to read one of Sherwood's Pulitzer-winning plays.)  In the accounts of the 1936 and 1940 elections, and the surrounding politics, I found several disconcerting parallels to more recent elections and politics.  I suppose that was somewhat comforting, if fatalistic in effect.

Apart from new books for review, a few D.H. Lawrence short stories, the beginning chapters of Arthur Zajonc's intriguing Catching the Light and some chapters on Shakespeare plays in conjunction with a production review, I think that's about it.

No comments: