Henry James once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.” Not bad, but I would say “summer reading.” Each June, when the school year ends and the days lengthen, I start to collect my friends for the warm months ahead. It’s a time of hope and passionate resolutions: Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma in the original French, that Yale Younger Poets winner, the cascading chapters of Middlemarch, a tennis biography, something on the Founding Fathers. I swear to myself that I will get through it all; this year will be different.
Of course, by the end of August, I will have only finished a fraction of these pages. Read and unread, the pile rests on my living room table all summer, the perfect backdrop for the season. We can daydream and make big unrealizable plans when it’s cold and dark out – but much better to do so on a lazy afternoon when it’s too hot to bother with anything else.
There’s no rhyme or reason to what I read, randomness is all. But there are a few principles:
• never confuse your summer reading with the books that you’re supposed to read, either for work or self-edification.
• always reread something you love (this summer, it’s Boccaccio and his “gracious ladies“).
• never read just one book at a time; keep that pile high.
• always accept that some books are just too long, too difficult, and too complicated for you ever to finish, unless you live to be 101 (or, in the case of Middlemarch, 121).
If there’s anything I love as much as reading books in summer, it’s buying them. In the town I grew up in, Westerly, Rhode Island, the independent bookstore Other Tiger (inspired by the Borges poem) is downtown just a few minutes drive from the beach house I rent each August to visit family. Unlike the thriving tourist economy on the coast, the downtown area is much quieter, with family-run businesses and cozy restaurants lining its handsome streets. A section of the bookshop is dedicated to local and state history, Rhode Island cartoons and trivia games, the sagas of Westerly’s immigrant families and granite quarries. It’s a space of conservation, dedicated to preserving the stories of the world I grew up in and all the memories attached to it.
My town has changed a lot over the years. A Walmart now stands on Route 1 near the beaches, its massive parking lot looming like a bunker that separates the rest of the town from the sand and sea. As in so many other American towns, the mills and factories have disappeared; small enterprises struggle to remain competitive. My childhood street used to have a few houses, I knew all of my neighbors. Now my mom’s home is surrounded by anonymous duplexes and apartment buildings, the woods paved over and filled with a parade of cars, vans, and trucks, music blaring.
No matter how different Westerly is, when I go back to the Other Tiger I feel like it’s still summer, there’s still the beach and glorious coast, and there will always be too many books in my pile. I used to think that summer was about the books I read. It’s actually more about the ones I didn’t or will never finish. After all, I’m sure I’ve changed as much as my town. What better way to mark these changes, even try to understand them, than with a never-ending reading list?
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) addressed his monumental Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of one hundred novelle (“tales”) narrated during the Black Plague of 1348, to “graziosissime donne” (“most gracious ladies”), rather than to the typical male audience of the Middle Ages. He was especially keen to reach out to those female readers who suffered the pain of love. Unlike men in love, who have many ways to “alleviate or remove” the disquieting thoughts of love (they can hawk, hunt, fish, ride, gamble), women remain couped up indoors. “Out of fear and shame, [they] keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts” (trans. W. Rebhorn).
The Decameron, newly translated by Wayne Rebhorn (Norton, 2013), is often seen as the “human comedy,” an earthy, humanist, proto-Renaissance counterpoint to Dante’s eminently medieval Divine Comedy. Whereas Dante prepares the soul for a Christian afterlife, Boccaccio’s focuses on the earthly adventures of his merchants, prostitutes, bankers, kings, slaves, and beggars with apparently little concern for the heavens above.
At least that’s the standard story. In truth, Boccaccio was more connected to Dante’s vision—and its Christian afterlife—than most realize. He was one of Dante’s earliest and most important promoters, writing a Treatise in Praise of Dante around 1350 and lecturing on The Divine Comedy in Florence’s Santo Stefano church in 1373. By then the aging Boccaccio had come to reject the more erotic elements of his youthful Decameron, as he spent his final years in intense Christian devotion.
Dante condemned Francesca da Rimini to the Circle of the Lustful because of her adulterous affair with her brother-in-law Paolo. The betrayal came about because one day Francesca and Paolo were reading “per diletto” (“for pleasure”), of Lancelot and Guinevere’s embrace. Now in Dante you cannot simply read per diletto: all aesthetic pleasure must be grounded in Christian morality. That Boccaccio would allow–indeed, urge–his gentle ladies to read for pleasure and pleasure alone makes a profound break with the dogmatic Christian view that art should never separate itself from religion. Renaissance humanism is many things: the recuperation of Greco-Roman culture, the emergence of a rationalist and scientific worldview, the formation of the first modern states. High on this list ranks the freedom of artistic expression (and, in the case of our gentle lady readers, artistic appreciation) from religious doctrine that Boccaccio promoted.
It’s no wonder that The Decameron would inspire so many Renaissance artists. In 1483, Lorenzo il Magnifico commissioned Botticelli to paint four episodes from Boccaccio’s tale of Nastagio degli Onesti.
The story is not for the faint of heart. To free himself from the cruelty of a woman he is in love with, the young nobleman Nastagio degli Onesti leaves Ravenna and sets up an elegant camp a few miles outside the city. While there he witnesses the gruesome spectacle of a woman pursued by mastiff hounds tearing at her flesh (figure 1) and a bloodthirsty knight. When Nastagio tries to intervene and protect the damsel, the spectral knight warns him away. He and his lover, in an infernal inversion of the gentle Paolo and Francesca, are doomed to an eternity of slaughter: “every time I catch her,” he tells Nastagio, “I kill her with the same sword with which I slew myself” (figure 2). Nastagio brings his lady along with her family to see the spectacle (figure 3), which frightens her so much that she agrees to marry the man whom she had once spurned (figure 4).
I suppose it is a “happy ending” of sorts, but brilliantly, ambiguously so. Boccaccio was too shrewd and subtle a writer not to suggest that a woman coerced into marriage by a scene of torture could hardly be described as fortunate and free. The world he inhabited was deeply hierarchical, with clearly allotted roles for men and woman, master and servant, noble and pauper. And yet his Decameron also reveals a more fluid world with a rising middle class that gets ahead through savvy and street smarts. Above all, his book carves out new possibilities for women, transforming what had been a male literary space into a place for gentle ladies.