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Traveling By the Book

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Summer at the Library of Congress is a magical time. The halls of the Library’s Jefferson Building seem to fill with students and families, just as the desks in our office spaces seem to mysteriously go quiet and colleagues make a break for their own vacation. For me, it’s the season of the perfect lunch hour: a few snacks and a good book facing the beautiful landscapes of the Capitol.

This week, I’ve spent my lunches with The Pickup by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. I picked up (pun-intended, as always) a used copy during Fourth of July weekend in a small bookstore in historical Haddonfield, New Jersey. Washington, D.C., such a diverse and transitional city, feels like the perfect spot to read about one of the novel’s protagonists: Ibrahim, forced to flee his home in South Africa after his illegal status is uncovered by the government. Ibrahim and his South African lover Julie struggle between two worlds—South African and Middle Eastern—revealing the intersections, commonalities, and boundaries that define the two.

For me, The Pickup is a great summer read: it features faraway landscapes and a rich love story, but it’s also grappling with difficult issues that keep my mind engaged until I walk back to the office and the work on my desk. My summer lunch hour is its own vacation into books, and it infuses my day with a sense of wonder. Even as an adult, summer reading feels like a mental break—a time set aside from the rush of the year to lounge in the sun and daydream about wherever a few pages might lead me.

Courtesy of the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division.

Today, I noticed another reader on the benches outside the Jefferson Building, and I couldn’t quite catch the title of their book. It got me wondering: How many of us still enjoy that magic feeling of summer reading? How many of you are entrenched in that special book now—and where is it taking you? (Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center, is engrossed Dinaw Mengestu The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.) Feel free to share what you’re reading in the comments too, and let us know of your summer reading highlights!

Comments (2)

  1. I’m reading, or I guess re-reading ( but I was soooo young for the first
    reading that it’s like a different book now) “Surprised by Joy” by C.S.
    Lewis. I think I must have done a lotof “skipping” the first time over the
    deeper parts, which now, I enjoy.

  2. I’m reading books by Ivan Doig, a Montana native (though he now lives in Seattle) who writes about the history of his home state mainly through memoirs and novels. “This House of Sky” is his memoir of growing up in the mountains of central Montana. It’s a story that’s both starkly realistic and poetically graced, of an only child being raised by his hard-working but withdrawn ranch-hand father and his cantankerous maternal grandmother. “Heart Earth,” written years later, is a tribute to his mother, who died when he was five years old; he wrote it after he inherited a bundle of her letters and began to get to know her as a person for the first time. Doig’s novels are to me equally fascinating, created around quirky individuals, family storms and times of peace, coming of age, and the untangling of memories. There’s the history of the McCaskill family who started out Montana life as homesteaders living in “Scotch Heaven,” a cluster of hardscrabble high mountain ranches, in the trilogy “English Creek,” “Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” and “Dance With Me, Mariah Montana.” Another trilogy is written around the erudite, book-loving Morris Morgan, on the run from the Chicago gambling mob, who works for awhile as a one-room school teacher and ends up lending his talents to the notorious labor disputes of the miners in Butte following World War I: “The Whistling Season,” “Work Song,” and “Sweet Thunder.” Doig has written several standalone novels, too, and at least one other nonfiction title. I’m reading my way through all of them, enjoying every page. I’ve lived most of my life in the Rocky Mountain West, in Colorado, Wyoming, and now Montana, and to me Doig’s is one of the few genuinely authentic voices of our western history and ways of life. If you don’t know the West and want to know what it’s really been like to live here during the last 150 years or so, beyond all the legends and myths and pioneer propaganda, read his books. If you do know the West and want to learn more about its history and geography while treating yourself to a brilliant, word-juggling writing style and characters that get under your skin, don’t miss Ivan Doig.

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