Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Catching up on last year’s reading

Danny Heitman
Danny Heitman

I haven’t paid much attention to the latest summer reading lists, since I’m still trying to finish reading the books I started last summer.

Twelve months ago, I decided to tackle the novels of Shirley Jackson, who’s best known for “The Lottery,” her short story about citizens of a quaint New England town who gather to participate in a bizarre civic ritual. In longer fiction, such as “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Hangsaman” and “The Road Through the Wall,” Jackson offered chilling narratives touched by the supernatural.

Paperbacks of Jackson’s work followed me last summer in bottoms of suitcases, on patio tables, in the passenger seats of cars headed on long road trips. The books went wherever I did, quietly haunting me like one of Jackson’s phantoms, but the simple task of reading them went uncompleted. In summer, we never read as much as we think we will.

The paperbacks eventually receded into some dim corner of the house as autumn came, but with the arrival of another summer, they’ve magically resurfaced — just as resilient, apparently, as the season’s crab grass.

I’m trying them again, along with “Raising Demons,” the second of Jackson’s memoirs of motherhood. When Jackson wasn’t writing macabre tales, she had an alternate life as a forerunner of Erma Bombeck, penning humorous commentaries on her life as a parent. I’d read “Life Among the Savages,” Jackson’s first sendup of raising kids, before becoming a parent myself. “Raising Demons” resonates more deeply now that I have children of my own.

Jackson didn’t take very good care of herself, and she died, much too young, in 1965. Reading her autobiographical writings is a little like watching “Mad Men,” the popular TV drama about a 1960s advertising agency. The pleasure of her tales, and their chief complication, is that they often seem like period pieces.

I’ve also been reading “The 40s,” a new anthology of New Yorker writing from that momentous decade. The war reportage still crackles, since the correspondents have no idea how things will turn out. In an essay published as World War II started in Europe, E.B. White discusses America’s full immersion in the media coverage. “Through it all the radio is immense,” he tells readers. “It is the box we live in.”

But “The 40s” includes happier topics, too. There’s a section devoted to books, for example, in which the magazine’s critics consider new titles from Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and George Orwell.

The reviewers can’t know what we do — that the authors resting in their laps will endure, more than half a century later, as literary geniuses.

That’s another reason to open a book this summer, I suppose. In cracking the spine of a new book, you just might end up holding greatness.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny­­_Heitman.