‘How do you manage to fill those long summer holidays?’ The question was asked by a graduate at Bangor at his graduation-day party, and seemed charged with genuine concern. If I couldn’t fill those empty months without seminars or lectures, he seemed to imply, I’d be at danger of going off the rails. The student — let’s call him Johnny DeNiro, for he truly had changed his surname to that of an Italian-American film star — was a likeable and bright guy who had overcome many obstacles to get his degree; but I was astonished that he’d spent three years at university and still thought that lecturers spent the summer vacation with nothing to do. It’s the time when books and articles get written, when editions get edited and annotated, and when conference papers are delivered and discussed. Last summer I examined two PhD theses, one in Edinburgh and one in St Andrews, and on the train home from the first viva voce examination I began reading the thesis for the second one. I understand the idea of a summer read, as something slightly less demanding than usual, or as a break from the usual routine, but I understand it in a distant and theoretical way; savoir, not connaitre. In practice I’m too busy reading in the summer to find time for summer reading; and when I’m not reading, I’m writing.
My most sand-filled books are Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: A Short History, which I read on various beaches in North Wales in the summer of 1998, trying to understand what on earth was happening in the Balkans, and a Penguin translation of the Odyssey, which I read in the Mani in the summer of 2001, as I was teaching a module on Ulysses the next academic year and thought I could talk more authoritatively about Joyce’s ‘mythical method’ if I’d read Homer. (In fact it made little difference, but I loved reading it). If the first was intensely serious, it was at least a break from work; the second was a pleasure, but there was a justification for it. I don’t suppose either fulfils other people’s criteria for summer reading; they don’t even fulfil mine. If I’m taking time off and spending it with a book, it’s more likely to be over the Christmas break; but, for the sake of naming something, if I have time this summer for reading that doesn’t fulfil an immediate research need, I’m be catching up with some biographies — Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us, or Dai Smith’s A Warrior’s Tale — or perhaps history of science, Jon Agar’s Science in the Twentieth Century. That said, lining them up for the photoshoot, I’m alarmed by their monumentality; perhaps I need to continue the search for something light and distracting.