Forty summers ago around this time, I was packing a small suitcase in preparation for a first-ever trip to New York City. This was to be a reconnaissance mission of sorts, an initial exploration of what would be my new home for at least the next three years. (It turned out to be more like twelve.)
After having grown up in Northwest Indiana and attended college at Valparaiso University, located in the region’s outskirts, I yearned to spend time in another part of the country. This desire was fueled by a final collegiate semester at VU’s overseas study center in Cambridge, England, which greatly expanded my horizons.
Plans to attend law school provided an opportunity to satisfy that exploratory vibe, and initially I was looking very intently at the West Coast. Back then, I harbored great ambitions of having a career in politics, and I figured that California might be a good launching pad for that. But when New York University extended an offer to attend its well-regarded law school, located in the heart of a Manhattan neighborhood called Greenwich Village, I opted to go in the opposite direction.
My impressions of NYU and New York City in general were mostly on paper, supplemented by images drawn from television shows and movies set in the city. You see, I had never been to New York. The meager state of my finances was such that I had done all of my research about potential law schools by poring over admissions brochures and published commercial guidebooks. I had accepted NYU’s offer of admission sight unseen.
With my first year of law school beckoning in the fall, I figured I should check out what I had gotten myself into. So I planned a short summer trip to New York.
I booked a tiny room at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street in Manhattan. The bathroom was down the hall. The guest rent was $18 a night. At least it was an upgrade from my youth hostel travels during my semester abroad.
I’ve kept the guidebook I used to help plan my trip. In Frommer’s 1981-82 Guide to New York, author Faye Hammel writes:
You should be advised that there is one dangerous aspect of coming to New York for the first time: not of getting lost, mobbed, or caught in a blackout, but of falling so desperately in love with the city that you may not want to go home again. Or, if you do, it may be just to pack your bags.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened. My short visit didn’t allay all of my anxieties about moving to another part of the country to experience the rigors of law school, but the city immediately started to work its magic on me. I did some of the standard tourist stuff, including visits to the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the wonderful Strand bookstore. And I spent time at NYU, checking out Vanderbilt Hall (the main law school building) and Hayden Hall (the residence hall where most first-year law students lived), both located on historic Washington Square.
I returned from my brief sojourn believing that I had made the right choice. This first impression would prove to be correct. New York and NYU were the right matches for me.
Later that summer, I used my little portable cassette player to tape this classic Sinatra number from the radio, and I would play it over and again. The lyrics spoke to me, as they have for countless others who have found their way to New York, for stays short and long.
I now live in Boston, and this city is home for me, quite possibly for the duration. Its smaller scale, slightly slower pace, and bookish, “thinky” vibe are more in line with who I am today. But New York will always be a part of me as well, starting with that summer 1982 visit.
The phrase continues to enchant me, even if summers at late middle age fly by faster than ever before. And in this third summer of the pandemic, when life has morphed into a weird normal/not normal state and the world feels disturbingly unsettled, the idea of summer reading is the equivalent of literary comfort food.
Writing in the Boston Globe (link here), journalist David Schribman opens his reflection on summer reading this way:
I pack light for my summertime ramblings in New England.
For years I loaded in a pile of books for my trips — presidential biographies, World War II chronicles, Cold War spy novels, mysteries. Then I realized that I got to hardly any of them. I was distracted — by the cool waters of Echo Lake at the base of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, for example, and by the view from Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, and by the tang of fried clams from Harraseeket Lunch in South Freeport, Me., the cool relief of a mid-afternoon ice cream from Round Top in Damariscotta, the smell of the pies baking across the region, and the rich crunch of picked-today sweet corn from an unattended wooden roadside stand in backroads New Hampshire.
I was also distracted by the books I borrowed along the way.
In houses we visited or rented, in inns we frequented or visited just once, and sometimes even in chain hotels, there were tucked-away jewels and gems, sometimes out in the open (on yawning bookshelves), sometimes on stone mantelpieces (leaning one way or another), occasionally employed under a wobbly table (to keep the crockery from sliding).
Reading this and the rest of Schribman’s contemplative piece, I’m imagining a lazy summer spent in assorted New England venues…relaxing, brewing up some coffee or tea, and reading books. Ahhhhh.
Well, even for me, an academic who actually lives in New England, my summers typically aren’t so tranquil. I’m usually working on a research and writing project (or fretting about not making progress on same), as well as keeping busy with a variety of non-profit and advocacy commitments. While I am grateful for the flexibility of my schedule and the freedom to take breaks and occasional trips, I have yet to experience that truly idyllic “summer off” during some 30 years of teaching. (Perhaps I should make this a priority!)
Nevertheless, I am looking forward to a summer that includes some enjoyable leisure reading. I’ve started off with a twisty murder mystery novel, Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library (2022). It’s set in one of my favorite venues, the Central Library of the Boston Public Library! The novel has been getting rave notices, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
As for summer reading selections after this one, I haven’t decided. When not reading more systematically for a specific purpose, I tend to go with the flow when it comes to picking out what to read next. There are many worthy possibilities, so at least it will be difficult to make a bad choice.