Beach-Bag Books
Your summer reading list.


We asked some of NROs literati: What books, old or new, would you recommend for our summer beach reading?

The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War by David Lebedoff. An interesting essay on two heroes of the last century, the socialist atheist and the Tory Catholic. Lebedoff argues, not unpersuasively, that they had much in common.

The Aeneid, translated by Sarah Ruden. A sensational translation of Virgil’s epic of war by a Quaker convert who found common ground with him. NB: Mike Potemra and I took her to lunch, and she is a wonderful person, eager, earnest, and funny all at once.

Golden oldie: Snows of Yesteryear, by Gerhard von Rezzori. Memoirs of the son of a minor Hapsburg official, growing up between the wars in the Romanian hinterlands (now in Ukraine). Teaser: Though the author’s father was a deep-dyed anti-Semite, he was not at all pleased by the emergence of Hitler, remarking that he would not hire the Nazi leader to be his coachman.

– Rick Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review.

Dead Souls
    In honor of Nikolai Gogol’s bicentenary, I had another go at his masterpiece. From Abebooks I got the 1942 B. G. Guerney translation, as recommended by Vladimir Nabokov, but absurdly titled: Chichikov’s Journeys, or Home Life in Old Russia. (Nabokov thought the title change was “prompted by the fear of suggesting gloomy ideas to rosy-cheeked comic strip fans.”)

What a peculiar novel! I only read Book 1, again on Nabokov’s advice — he says Gogol went off the literary rails thereafter. It offers the reader a sort of dream landscape of shabby little towns and people dealing with each other incoherently, stumbling and groping through their fates to not much effect. Dark and very strange, it is material organized on principles not always logical.

Obscure and humble is the origin of our hero. His parents were of the nobility, but whether hereditary or from a new-baked lot, God knows. He did not resemble them in face. . . . 

All well and good: but this is page 211 of the Guerney text! The Modern Movement accustomed us to this kind of narrative jiggery-pokery, but it must have been striking in 1842. A very odd book, whose inhabitants, while recognizably human, leave the reader feeling uneasy about our species and its prospects.

Mathematicians: An Outer View of the Inner World    More a coffee table book than a beach book — it measures ten inches by twelve — this book from Princeton University Press offers 92 large black-and-white studio photographs of mathematicians, each faced by a page of text, 400 to 900 words, in which the featured mathematician talks about himself and his work.

The editor explains that: “The selection is not intended as a list of the ‘top’ current mathematicians but rather is somewhat random.” There is therefore a good geographical spread, all continents represented, and both sexes (11 of the 92 are female). There is a quite extraordinary variety of backgrounds, confirming one’s intuition that of all talents, the mathematical one may be most helpful in lifting genius out of obscurity.

Mariana Cook’s photographs seem to defy the common belief that mathematics is a young person’s game. The median age here is somewhere in the fifties. It takes a while to get famous, though, even in math, and the common belief, while largely true, has many exceptions. The other common belief about mathematicians, that their minds dwell far from the world of words and expressed emotion, is quite false, as the eloquence of many of Ms. Cook’s subjects shows. Here is Sir Michael Atiyah (who grew up in Khartoum):

Mathematicians are generally thought of as some kind of intellectual machine, a great brain that crunches numbers and spits out theorems. In fact we are . . . more like creative artists. Although strongly constrained by the rules of logic and by physical experience, we use our imagination to make great leaps into the unknown. The development of mathematics over thousands of years is one of the great achievements of civilization.

Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable    Cognitive scientists are pushing forward the understanding of how we think. Here is one of them, Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol, with a book about why we believe illogical or preposterous things. Believing that if you let go of your coffee cup it will drop to the ground is perfectly reasonable; but why do we believe that we can sense being stared at from behind? Or that a fountain pen that once belonged to Albert Eistein has some awe-inspiring quality that John Derbyshire’s fountain pen does not have? Or that performing the sex act in a cathedral confessional is more flagitious than doing the same thing in a bus-station toilet cubicle? And then of course the big things: afterlife, God, sacred objects.