Jeff Pajak, a volunteer summer intern at Catholic Communications, was asked to offer some good summer reading suggestions.
Pajak, a 2007 graduate of Holyoke Catholic High School, is an English major at Providence College and entering his senior year.
The ten books listed below might seem daunting at first glance, but he said these classics are worth the time.
Books for the Summer
By Jeff Pajak
1. The Brothers Karamazov
This Russian classic speaks for itself. This great opus defined my entire summer last year. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterful novel often seems to escape the notice of the standard literature curriculum in universities today, but only because of the novel’s massive girth. Sure, with a binding the width of a small piano (and nearly identical in weight), the book is more than intimidating.
You might have to forgo any other plans you had for the summer, but if it means reading from cover to cover the greatest novel written by perhaps the greatest novelist – trust me, it’s worth it.
2. Invisible Cities
Italo Calvini was reputed as a wonderful storyteller, and nowhere may this be better demonstrated than in his work, Invisible Cities. Set in the time of the declining empire of Kublai Khan, Cities seems to pull on all the mysteries of the Far East that westerners have ever wondered about and use them to tantalize our imaginations. As Calvini shares his wisdom with us through the tales and reports of Marco Polo, we are simultaneously granted the warm comfort of swapping stories around a campfire, and the majesty of an imperial palace. In a more practical sense, Cities makes for convenient reading because it takes mere minutes to visit one city or another, as each of Polo’s descriptions is no more than a page or two.
Like the contents of a good fortune cookie, the proverbial insights offered in this book are short and sweet, lasting long after the book has been ingested.
3. Paradise Lost
John Milton’s work was recorded by his daughter after he had lost his sight from years of government service during Oliver Cromwell’s administration. Milton’s epic poem from the seventeenth century is probably the most famous work of literature that recounts that fall of Lucifer, and later, the fall of humankind. While intricately beautiful, Milton’s language takes getting used to, so take full advantage of the “arguments” which preface and summarize each of the poem’s twelve books. Though blind himself, Milton shows us a cosmic vision of hate and love, defeat and victory, fall and promised redemption. It is great experiencing the events before and after Creation from the perspectives of unforgettable characters like Satan (and all his buddies), Abdiel, Raphael, Adam and Eve, and God Himself. It gave me a new appreciation for some of the Biblical stories I learned in my religious education classes, to say the least.
4. The Wind in the Willows
I felt a little silly searching for this cute book in the children’s section of the library, but never has embarrassment over a book beneath my reading level (supposedly) been so rewarding. I began reading Kenneth Grahame’s novel during my first days back on campus for the second semester at Providence College (when the desire for a longer Christmas break was the strongest). I would never have expected it, but the delightful and refreshing story of four talking animal friends (with British accents!) living simple lives between the fraying covers of that 1925 edition extended my vacation until I read the very last word. Each night, after a long day of classes and work, I found myself smiling like a child as I hopped into a comfy chair and respectfully parted the yellowed pages until I met those four critters wherever I had last left them.
Whether I was floating serenely down the river in Rat’s raft, bouncing down a dirt road in Mr. Toad’s new automobile, or scurrying with Mole through the Wild Wood in the hopes of reaching the safety of Mr. Badger’s burrow, The Wind in the Willows was a joyful retreat. I recall it fondly, and every so often, muse upon its simplicity and the hidden truths undoubtedly hidden in the story.
5. David Copperfield
Finishing with a grand total of eight hundred and fifty-five pages, my copy of David Copperfield is a worthy rival of The Brothers Karamazov for the “Fattest Book Award” in my collection. This book, however, has the special honor of being the only book which a professor assigned me to read part of that I then went and finished on my own, months after the semester had ended. More importantly, it is the novel that taught me to appreciate Charles Dickens, in all his brilliant wordiness. Recounting the loves, trials, friends, and enemies of young Mr. Copperfield, this novel includes some of the most memorable characters in English literature, such as the bumbling but well-intentioned Mr. Micawber, or the sniveling and devious Uriah Heep. It is the coming of age story of a young man as he journeys from poverty to a place of his own, and as the quasi-autobiographical work of the elegant author’s own life, it promises to be both enjoyable and instructive.
6. A Guide for the Perplexed
Every once in a while, we will be in the midst of living our lives without too much concern, when suddenly we come face to face with some thing that wakes us up. We realize how very little we actually know. E.F. Schumacher’s Guide opened my eyes in this way. Having read the book, I see now how fitting the title is. However, when I first received it as a birthday gift from my father several years ago, I read the title and thought, “Great! Next time I’m confused, I’ll know where to find the answers.” But books like this are not meant to be treated as first aid kits, used only in a time of crisis. Rather, the time to read such books is always “now.” It wasn’t until a year ago when, feeling hungry for something a “smart” person would read, I dusted off the cover of this book and cracked it open. To be honest, much of what I encountered in Schumacher’s philosophical study of being and knowledge went over my head. However, what I did understand blew my mind. With the precision of Aristotle or Aquinas, Schumacher analyzes…everything. I recall how he illustrated the unknown limitations of the human spirit with the story of Therese Neumann, a German peasant of the last century who survived without drink or food, except the Eucharist, for thirty-five years! It’s like catching a glimpse of how the miracle of life works. Even as I try to describe this book, I realize now it might be time to revisit its pages. When I do reread it, I do not expect to be bored. Schumacher’s Guide is the kind that makes different truths known every time it’s consulted.
7. The Silmarillion
My own personal favorite, J.R.R. Tolkien spent his entire life working on this history of the world called Middle Earth. As the chronological prequel to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion is actually a concise narrative of merely the First Age of Middle Earth, and it is wrought with tales of creation, exile, love, betrayal, woe, and resistance. In essence, it is about the ongoing battle between good and evil, told as a myth in poetic language by the master of fantasy. It is the gravest of faerie tales, and an epic in its own right. Mirroring the scope of the Old Testament and Paradise Lost, The Silmarillion echoes the tragedy of man and of our own Earth.
Probably one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis no doubt has influenced the lives of a countless number of people. My own parents introduced me to him through The Chronicles of Narnia when I was fairly young. Since then, I have bumped into Mr. Lewis time and time again, whether in books, articles, the classroom, or even daily conversation. Amongst my friends and me, it is safe to say Lewis is the most frequently quoted. What he says in his books has a way of sticking with you because he writes in such a unique, sensible, and familiar style. This style is perhaps best exhibited in his apologetic book, Mere Christianity, which my sister just received as a gift for her Confirmation. Perelandra, on the other hand, is the second book in Lewis’ lesser known fiction series entitled “The Space Trilogy.” It continues the theme of the fall of man and its effects in the adventures of Dr. Ransom, who intellectually and physically takes on and old evil on a planet that still grows the fruits of Eden. While it is the second book in the trilogy, Perelandra may be read on its own. It is an excellent way to engage the mind of Lewis, again or for the first time.
At the risk of losing respect from a few of my testosterone-driven comrades, I am recommending on of the last novels written by none other than the infamous Jane Austen. Unquestionably one of the greatest novelists in all of women’s literature, Austen writes with the subtlety, emotion, and wit of an artist who has developed her personal technique to the fullest. I think what struck me most about Persuasion was the maturity of its two central characters in comparison to those found Austen’s other novels. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are confronted with the age-old question of duty and love, and which of the two should take priority. With her usual combination of humor, primness, and charm, Austen spins a romance in Persuasion that is a far superior alternative to viewing whatever romantic comedy is currently playing in theaters.
10. The Lion in Winter
When a person is looking for good reading material, works of drama don’t usually come to mind. At least, for me they didn’t – that is, until recently. Written for the stage, I have discovered (as I’m sure many of you have) that plays often hold nuggets of profound truth or unforgettable scenes of action and dialogue which are incomparable to those found in novels. However, since most of us can’t see a Broadway performance or school production every weekend, we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience the world of Shakespeare in the comfort of our own homes. The Lion in Winter is a shining example of what is waiting to be discovered. It’s Christmastime, and James Goldman tells the story of a family suffering from the pressure and frenzy of the holiday season. Sound familiar? Only, this family is that of Henry II, King of England, who shares his castle with figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionhearted; and everyone is plotting for possession of the throne. Goldman writes this comedy of historical titans with a biting wit and passion, making this impressive play more than worth the afternoon spent reading it.