Because it’s too Hot for Heavy Reading

In our Summer Reading Symposium, I recommended three books for summer reading. I love these books too much to leave it at a mere ‘name dropping’. Let me try to convince you, using the opening line, my thoughts and an excerpt from each, that the three books I mentioned are really and truly worth your time this summer.
1. There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

There is a people-pleasing, ego-centric bug named Humbug. A watchdog named Tock with a complex because his watch-body goes “tick.” Dictionopolis, where words grow on trees, since we all know money won’t. Alex, a boy who is growing down, instead of growing up, (his feet might still be dangling, poor kid). The Terrible Dyne, who can’t stand anything harmonic. And a boy named Milo, whose existential crisis sends him in fantastic lands where he meets all of these characters, and a whole lot more.

Juster fills every page with word plays, imagination, poignancy and all-around incredible wit. A light and fun read, especially if you can read it to someone out-loud.


“Pardon me,” said Milo to the first man who happened by; “can you tell me where I am?”

“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”
“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.
“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”
“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”

As he spoke, at least eight or nine more people sailed onto the island from every direction possible.

“Well, I’m going to jump right back,” announced the Humbug, who took two or three practice bends, leaped as far as he could, and landed in a heap two feet away.

“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

2. Papa is in his easy chair, reading the Sunday sports page.

The Brothers K by James Duncan

645 pages—right. I have time to read that…  well, I made time. Or, more, Duncan’s  book made me make time—I couldn’t put it  down. Why have more people not read or  heard of this book? It is a largely  unrecognized gem of 20th American l  literature that, categories aside, might just  give Doestoevsky a run for his money.  Duncan’s intricate story takes the reader  into the world of a family of eight: an  aloof, baseball-playing father, the intense,  religious mother, and four brothers and  two twin girls.

From Indian trains, to Vietnam, to a  backyard makeshift bullpen, Duncan seamlessly carries the reader through people and places, emotions and theories. In a single page, I would hit sections where I verged on tears and then, farther down, burst into laughter. Even though he switches through a variety of narrators, Duncan always maintains both consistency and creativity in tone. The book is honest—sometimes painfully so—but also gracious, convicting and entrancing. In both content and length, definitely an epic.

“Mama is a Seventh Day Adventist. She doesn’t make Papa go to church because she can’t figure out how to, and she doesn’t make Irwin to because he loves church and would go no matter what. But Everett, Peter, the twins and me she makes go every Sabbath unless we’re sick. And today is Sabbath. And I’m not sick. And the sun is already so hot outside that everything all bleached and wobbly-looking, as if the whole world was just an overexposed home movie God was showing Jesus up on the livingroom wall. And whenever it’s really hot, Elder Babcock’s sermon—even if it starts out being about some nice quiet thing like the poor or meek or weak—will sooner or later twist like a snake with its head run over to the unquiet subject of heaven and hell, and who all is going to which, and how long you’ll have to stay, and what all will happen to you when you get there, and he goes on so loud and long and the air gets so used up and awful that bit by bit you lose track of any difference between his heaven and his hell and would gladly pick either over church.”

3. I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure.

Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber

In every Marx Brothers act & film, Harpo never says a word. But he has a lot to say—nearly 500 pages worth, in fact. But I never would have guessed that like The Brothers K, I could not put down Harpo Speaks. Harpo takes the reader through through his childhood home, Brooklyn’s Jewish ghetto, through life on the road, Hollywood, vaudeville stages and celebrity mansions and private islands. Harpo is an entertainer, and that remains true in his writing. The book is filled with hilarious stories, bizarre people and the behind-the-scenes lives of the Marx brothers.

For example, Harpo tells the story of when his parents wanted to get Chico (one of his brothers) piano lessons in New York. The cheapest teacher was a lady who only knew how to play with her right hand—so Chico was formally taught only how to play right hand. Watch him play closely in the films, and you’ll notice that his left hand tends to only play basic chords and rhythm, while his right hand spins insanely across the ivories.

…or the story of how Harpo was—literally—thrown out of his elementary school window by Italian bullies, and never again returned to formal education.

Snappy writing, fascinating characters, quirky stories and one heck of a man. Even if you don’t get around to it this summer, Harpo Speaks  is a must read, especially for any fan of the Marx Brothers.

“I was looking forward to a solid weekend of practice, without interruptions, when my new neighbor started to bang away. I couldn’t hear anything below a forte on the harp. There were no signs the piano banging was going to stop. It only got more overpowering…

I went to the office to register a complaint. One of us had to go, I said, and it wasn’t going to be me because I was there first. But the management didn’t see it my way. The new guest, whose playing was driving me nuts, was Sergei Rachmaninoff. They were not about to ask him to move.

I was flattered to have such a distinguished neighbor, but I still had to practice. So I got rid of him my own way.

I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, over and over, fortissimo. Two hours later my fingers were getting numb. But I didn’t let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledge hammers. Then there was silence.”

Move these three books to the top of your queue–you won’t regret it. They are the epitome of summer reading. All you need is some iced tea, a lounge chair and big sunglasses. Or, if you live in Seattle, coffee and an umbrella. If you have extra time, check out what my colleagues recommended too (but :coughminearethebestcough:).