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Ed Justen By Ed Justen • September 8, 2019

Summer Reading #2019

Yes that’s correct, I actually read a few books this summer. Not because I all of sudden have a desire to read, but instead to help elevate my knowledge on a specific topic and cut down on screen time. So without further ado, a quick look at the dead-tree media I’ve consumed over the last few months. 
 
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
 
Design is the root of all things good and evil in this world (iPhone anyone?), and whether you realize it or not, the layout of your stove’s burner or refrigerator’s temperature knobs can be the difference between a life well-designed or an aggravating kitchen experience. 
 
This updated and expanded classic by Don Norman, the guru of modern design, includes many new examples of online design success and failure, as well as Norman’s previous threads looking at kitchen appliances, industrial tools and commercial entrances and exits. Ever wondered why you are constantly tying to go out the In door (or pulling the clearly marked Push door)? Bad design is most likely the culprit, and this book explains why. Once you’ve read this, you will behold your environment with fresh eyes, and begin to mentally revaluate the design of everything in your orbit. Not necessarily a bad thing, but also a good way to forgive yourself for your ineptness when you can’t figure something out.
 
A Year in Paris by John Baxter
 
While my obsession with all things Francophile has subsided in the last decade, this volume’s cover caught my eye during a visit to the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge (we had just visited the Bauhaus exhibit at the Harvard Art Museum). As is my custom, I perused the table of contents and found a chapter called April In Paris. Any student of jazz will recognize that as the title of a standard tune made famous by, among others, the Count Basie Band. 
 
The few pages of this short chapter gives a history of the tune and dissects the lyrics, evaluating them for accurateness. Is April really the best time to be in Paris? Well, the song doesn’t exactly say that, and, while the fourth month is indeed a fine time to be in Paris, it is no better than any other. It turns out that poetic license and lyrical must-haves ruled the roost on this tune, like many others. 
 
So, Paris? Check. Jazz History? Check. A tongue-in-cheek look at artistic zeitgeist? Check! This book must be a winner, right? Well, not so much as far as I was concerned. Baxter is an acclaimed travel writer and has spent more than 20 years in the city of light. He is also an avid historian with a high level of understanding regarding the French Revolution. The book contains several references to the now-obscure fact that the French attempted to implement a new calendar after the bloody revolution, so much so that it becomes an underlying theme, surfacing like an annoying pop-up message unable to dismiss. This book is robust, rich, and has many layers, but my feeble mind had a hard time melding them together into a cohesive narrative. 
 
In our Time by Ernest Hemingway
Men without Women by Ernest Hemingway  
 
I don’t know why I feel like I have to read Hemingway. In my life, I’ve probably read more Hemingway than any other single author (save John Gresham in the 80s). Maybe it’s because I toured his home in Key West years ago and could literally feel his presence during my stay there. I get why he was revolutionary in his day, short declarative sentences and all. And his stories really do bring you out of your present and place you in his world of crime, dissent, and war et al.
 
My question is this. Considering the world I live in today, why would I want to enter that world in the first place? Boxing rings, bullfighting arenas, battlefields, families with severe alcoholic issues,  these are the typical settings of the short stories in these two short volumes. The vignettes are poignant, and well written, some of them tying up the narrative in minimal pages, but most of these stories left me more depressed that I was previous to reading them. In essence, I guess that is the goal of the author, so well done Mr. Hemingway. 
 
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
 
“Really, Ed,” you must be thinking, “you’re only now reading this?" 
 
True. I don’t remember reading this American classic as a child, but then again, I really didn’t read much as a child (or as an adult). I chose this volume in part because it is an American classic, and because it’s barely 50 pages (page length is consideration of any book I peruse these days). 
 
One thing I learned during my ventures into the world of opera may years ago is that you have to observe and consume art in the context of the times that produced it. But this story demonstrates that the pursuit of the finer sex is wrought with challenge regardless of the era. A fickle heroine, a mysterious horseman, an odd disappearance? These elements make for a great story in any epoch. 
 
While I enjoyed the narrative, my biggest takeaway from reading this is to now be able to say “I’ve read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."