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The Voyager guide to summer books

By Will Isern

I spent most of the summer of 2004 in a hammock strung between two oak trees in my mother’s backyard.

I was 14 and, being an overly idealistic and serious young teen, I was absolutely enthralled with Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” How I came to own that book or why I chose to start reading it I can’t remember. But I’ll never forget that book.  I’d be lying if I said I still don’t give sway to Rand’s objectivist ideology. For that summer and the formative years to follow, Howard Roark was my hero.

Though I can’t be sure, I think that “The Fountainhead” was my first truly adult book. What I am certain of though, is that it was my first real summer book. I’d read books during the summer before, sure, but this was different. For one, it wasn’t on any school reading list. (The thought of entire classes of eighth graders returning from summer vacation full of the notion of one’s own happiness as the moral purpose of life no doubt gave pause to the English teachers that make those lists.) But more than that, it was the first book to show me what a summer read could be – sprawling, adventurous, gripping – nothing like the dull and heady school books I was so accustomed to.

You’ve no doubt had an experience like mine. We all in some way or another come to love a good summer book and come to know what “a good summer book” means. So, in honor of the last stretch of freedom before classes begin again on the cringe-inducingly close Aug. 28, I talked to five UWF’ers to get their suggestions for a great summer read.

·      First, Amy Mitchell-Cook, chair of the of the history department, who prefaced her selection with a warning: “My tastes are a little different.”

She suggested “In Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2000.

“It is a story of survival, cannibalism and death,” she said.  “It’s the whaleship Essex; ‘Moby Dick’ is based off of this. If you like adventure stories — tragedy, shipwrecks, survival — that genre, you’ll like this book. It’s an easy read, and it’s well written by a great author. It brings together a lot of interesting information in a readable and engaging way.”

There’s a chance you’ve read this one, as Dr. Mitchell-Cook teaches it in a couple of her courses. I know I read it when I took an American history course with professor Jay Clune, so I can absolutely back up Dr. Mitchell-Cook when she say’s this is one hell of a read (which she didn’t say, but would have, were it not for her refined and scholarly disposition). Adventure of the highest order.

·      Next up, English instructor Regina Sakalarios-Rogers.  Her response to what makes a great summer book:

“Something you can read and be interested in and engaged with, but not have to strain your brain to enjoy. Thinking is good, but sometimes you don’t want have to think too hard and I think summer is one of those times.”

Couldn’t agree more, ma’am. With those criteria in mind, she chose “The Black Count,” by Tom Breiss.

She said, “It is about the father of Alexander Dumas, the author of ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘The Count of Monte Christo.’ He based many of his stories on his father. It’s about how he was a black ex-slave who’s father was a French aristocrat, and when he came to France he rose to the level of general in the army and became an important part of Napoleon’s government.”

Now if a historical biography doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you adrenaline junkies are looking for, hold on, Sakalarios-Rogers has anticipated your “meh”.

“Biographies tend to be sort of dry and boring, but it’s not like that all. It’s a fantastic adventure story — it covers the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars. It’s got everything, it’s a great book.”

·      Now what kind of list would this be if we didn’t hear from a librarian? Not a very good list, that’s what kind.

So I called Britt McGowan. The campus directory lists her as an assistant librarian at the John C. Pace Library, but here she shall be referred to as The Reader of Awesome Books.

Being a librarian, The Reader of Awesome Books was so overwhelmed at the prospect of having to choose just one book when I called her that she asked if she could think about it and get back to me the next day, which I said was fine. This is the e-mail she sent me about an hour later.

Hi William,

Since we’ve been off the phone, I’ve thought about a billion books that make good summer reads…

But I am going to go with a book I recently read that is probably the antithesis of summer: “Housekeeping”

by Marilynne Robinson.  It takes place in one of the coldest landscapes I’ve read about and concerns the
isolated life of two girls and their eccentric aunt. It deals with loss and inner-housekeeping (not just
domesticity).  It might not be what others have in mind for a summer read, but it might make the Pensacola
heat seem oh-so lovely.

Other than that, I’m a sucker for short stories always (“Nine Stories”, “Tenth

of December”) – or if people haven’t read “On the Road”, summer is the absolute best time for that.  If you’d
rather go with one of those, I can elaborate!

Three cheers for The Reader of Awesome Books.

·      Moving right along, I happen to know that there is a course taught at UWF called “Great Books,” and that Honors students are required to take it. I know this because I dropped out of it when I dropped out of the Honors program all those years ago (Hi Mom!).

There are two things I remember from my brief time in the back row of that class: Achilles got into a fight with river (badass), and professor Gregory Lanier is one personable dude. Lanier is the mustachioed director of the Honors program. But, more importantly (this being a list about great books), he teaches said class and was thus in need of a phone call.

Lanier pitched “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” by Mitch Albom on the basis that, “A good summer book is something that you read and remember.

“It’s all about the people you meet in heaven who were the most influential to you in this life. It’s about the great question of what really is important in human relationships and what’s really valuable in your life.”


·      All right, recap time: We’ve heard from the English and history departments, the library, and the Honors program. We’ve got fiction and non-fiction, adventure and introspection. What are we missing here? Student representation!

I messaged my buddy Thomas, since he’s always reading something interesting. For informational purposes, Thomas Patrick Owens is a 22-year-old environmental science major here at UWF. He’s somewhere in that limbo land between junior and senior year that I’m sure you’re familiar with. He’s doing a study abroad in Brazil for the summer. I check in with him periodically to make sure he hasn’t been eaten by a jaguar or carried away by toucans. Here is a reconstruction of the conversation we had.

Me: Hey what are you reading?

Thomas: This book called “Ready Player One”.

A quick Google search tells me “Ready Player One” is a book by Ernest Cline published in 2011.

Me: What’s it about?

Thomas: It’s a story that takes place in the future. Video games are really popular and they basically put you in a virtual world. The creator of the game who is dead years later released a secret contest that’s like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

I needed clarification.

Me: What do you mean it’s like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”? And how did the developer release the game if he was dead?

Thomas: The winner takes the whole videogame company and assets, and he preprogrammed the contest to come out after his death.

Me: Aha. Sounds kind of interesting. What else can you tell me about it?
Thomas: The whole book is based on ‘80s pop culture, so there are like a million references to the ‘80s in the game and whoever knows the most useless knowledge about the ‘80s has an upper hand and will win. But there is this evil company who’s playing the contest too, and is trying to take over the videogame for advertising and moneymaking purposes. So this fat kid teams up with these other Internet people and is trying to win the contest.

Me: Hmm, okay. What do you like about it?

Thomas: It’s one of two books that I have in English here in Brazil.

Me: Oh. Well maybe I’ll check it out. Thanks, man.

So, dear reader, there you have it. Five great summer books. Why not do your brain a favor, put down the brew, and pick up one of these? Just remember, before too long you’ll wish the books you’re reading were about whaleships and video games and crazy aunts. For me, I think I’ll try “The Black Count.” Maybe I can find my new hero. Sorry, Howard.

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One Response to “The Voyager guide to summer books”

  1. jackdoitcrawford says:

    Ha ha, Will. You are a very good writer and although I don’t need a Summer book because I’m retired, I enjoyed your piece very much. Have you thought of reading Atlas Shrugged, also by Ayn Rand?


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