After the Syllabus, Beach Tomes

The upcoming summer away from Swarthmore means a rare window of reading books not dictated by sylabi.  For those for whom sudden litereary freedom might be intimidating,  here is a list of summer recommended reads followed by choice selections from Swarthmore English professors.


“On the Road: The Original Scroll” (2007, 408 pgs) by Jack Kerouac.  

Not necessarily a brave pick for summer reading fodder, but there’s a reason it’s a classic of the microgenre: few other novels as well utilize the road novel as a form for expressing the soul-searching and identity transformation of early adulthood.

Since one of the book’s strengths is its unadulterated, raw expression, the Original Scroll manuscript released by Viking Press in 2007 is the novel’s ideal form.  A facsimile of the infamous “scroll” Kerouac created by taping together typewritten pages into one long document, this version maintains the carnal energy of Kerouac’s prose and uses the real-life names of characters like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs before they were replaced with pseudonyms in the final edition.


“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1967, 416 pgs) by Tom Wolfe.

A free-wheeling escapade of what would be called New Journalism, Wolfe’s non-fiction account of the adventures of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they pioneered their decade’s notions of counter-culture and experimented with LSD has all the youthful joie de vivre that makes for a raucous beach book.  It thrums with much of the same energy as Kerouac’s “On the Road”, but Wolfe’s outsider perspective gives the book a sober tone that questions whether these people he’s following have really discovered an empowering lifestyle, or have simply lost their minds.


“Leaving the Atocha Station” (2011, 181 pgs) by Ben Lerner.

Ben Lerner is the future.  For a while it looked as if “Shoplifting from American Apparel” author Tao Lin would be leading of any literary movement that would continue in Don DeLillo’s thematic footsteps, but it’s now clear that Lerner will be the leading light of the imnevitable next literary school intent on explaining our hyper-cultured, self-referential, internet-addicted society to itself.  A coming of age novella, “Leaving the Atocha Station” is a based on Lerner’s time in Madrid on a Fulbright as the young author fails to do any research or write much poetry. Instead he spends his time loafing through museums and lingering in unsuccessful romantic affairs. A bombing of the eponymous train station brings the novella to a nuanced examination of terrorism heavily informed by DeLillo, but. with Lerner’s dreamy touch.   The novella’s best section­—a tragic story told through GChat conversation— is a seemingly cloying premise instead realized with poignancy.  Its overlapping segments of text underscore the novel’s larger mediations on the unseen drawbacks of electronic communication and the modern disconnect that spills from all of Lerner’s prose.

In addition to his prose work, Lerner is also a National Book Award-nominated poet who uses his verse to explore many of the same themes present in “Atocha Station.” The best of his three collections is “Mean Free Path”  (2010, pgs 69). Its poems are complicated, weaving together disparate strands of culture and ideology, but that’s not important.  First and foremost Lerner’s verse is stunning, slamming you in the chest with the tongue of revelation.  You don’t need to understand every line to feel the thrum of his language and be diminished to awe.

-Taylor Hodges, Living & Arts Editor


“The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays” (2005, 180 pgs) by Wendell Berry.

Read Berry’s poetry, too.  He is an agrarian writer whose environmentalism is heavily grounded in an awareness of local culture and geography.  He’s challenging for all of us in part because he is a traditionalist whose conservatism becomes a radically progressive critique of our current systems of production and social organization. And he is a bracing writer. Berry would be great reading for the summer if you are taking a little time off to think.  And if you are heading “home,” wherever “home” is, it might be a good time to think about how your environment shapes you.

-Professor Nora Johnson

“The Yellow Birds” (2005, 180 pgs) by Kevin Powers.  

I don’t know his work but I’ve read it’s the best war novel since O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (which I’ve taught and admire) so I want to check this out as we enter the so-called post-Iraq and post-Afgan war era without actually coming to terms with what has happened in either country due to our interventions then and now.


“Americanah” (to be released May 14, 2013, 496 pgs) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I admire and have taught her short stories and her TED talk on the “danger of a single story,” so I want to check out her new novel set in Nigeria, London, and New York; it’s gotten stellar reviews.  I’d like to compare it to Zadie Smith’s “NW”, which I also hope to read.


“People of Paper” (2005, 256 pgs) by Salvador Plascencia.

This first novel by a young Chicano author has been recommended to me by two friends of mine on the Swarthmore faculty who’ve taught it, Braulio Muñoz and Luciano Martínez, so I want to turn to it this summer.  It’s experimental and metaphysical as well as many other things, comic and macabre, in the great tradition of Latin Am fiction; it also from what I can tell very much intervenes in current U.S. discourse using terms like “documentation,” “illegality,” “alien,” etc.  I want to read more Bolaño too….

“Anansi Boy” (2005, 336 pgs) by Neil Gaiman.  

The 2008 sequel to “American Gods”, so you know I’m there, though I’m a little late to the party and it’s gotten mixed reviews.

-Professor Peter Schmidt


“Tenth of December” (2013, 251 pgs) by George Saunders.

By now surely everybody has encountered at least one article about George Saunders’ latest collection of stories, and some have concluded perhaps that it surely cannot be that good. But guess what? It is that good. Here a twisted pharmaceutical test slides into nightmare; the comedic inner voices of children belie stunning external dramas; the American Dream, stripped bare, reveals only deranged competitive vacuity. And I’ve barely scratched the collective surface, beneath which lies such compassion for our various sins that to read George Saunders is to be amazed and blessed.

-Professor Gregory Frost

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading