David Lister: The Week in Arts

Summer reading should be pacy and portable
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The Independent Online

Most of the recommendations in the quality press would send you straight to the excess baggage counter. Together We Stand: Britain, America and the War in North Africa, May 1942-May 1943 is probably a fascinating book; but is it holiday reading? Let's be honest. If someone on the next deckchair was reading that, you'd be pretty brave to interrupt and ask if they wanted to join in a game of beach volleyball.

I looked at all the lists and found my sense of inadequacy growing. But then I came across something amazing, something unprecedented, something breathtakingly honest. The author Ruth Rendell began her recommendations thus: "If summer reading is holiday reading, I can't choose Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story. It's too heavy to carry."

In the long tradition of literary criticism, aesthetic debate and, not least, summer reading recommendations, the phrase "too heavy to carry" is never uttered. It is the sort of phrase to have producers on Front Row or Newsnight Review rush for the smelling salts. It reeks of the mundane, the pragmatic. It suggests a world where there are bags to pack, children to tend to, radios blaring; conditions not always ideal for the detailed study of the Anglo-US alliance in North Africa from 1942 to 1943.

Ruth Rendell has done the unthinkable. She has acknowledged what no one who gives these summer reading recommendations is meant to acknowledge. She has acknowledged that summer reading actually takes place in the summer.

I hope this marks a turning point in summer reading recommendations. Hitherto, there has been a determination to avoid, at all costs, matching books to the environment in which one reads them. Now, perhaps, we can have some lists that give us the best disposable paperbacks, because few books return from holiday in pristine condition. Perhaps we can also have the aesthetic quality of the summer reading lists diluted a little to include thrillers, short stories, humour - the genres that lend themselves to bite-sized chunks of time on the beach.

Mostly, summer reading recommendations are not there to help the harassed holidaymaker. They are there to boost the literary pretensions of the people giving the recommendations, to say: "Look at what I have already read and digested during the winter. Well, you can try and catch up with me, but by the time you've done so, I'll have been through the Booker long list."

But I don't believe even the people writing these lists actually take those art histories and military analyses on holiday. These are street cred lists - not what is actually to be found in the hand luggage. I'll certainly be reading the new biography of Mao - but either before I go on holiday or when I return. Summer reading needs to be something lighter, speedier and available in paperback. So, in honour of the woman who has brought summer reading lists back to reality, this holiday I'll try a Ruth Rendell.

Figaro's stormy marriage

Garsington is a beautiful venue for opera and the perfect setting for Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. The audience can see the elegant gardens stretching beyond the stage and the awning. The serenity of the setting beautifully fits the final scene on stage of reconciliation in the garden in the splendid current production, above.

Except that when I went on Tuesday, the heavens opened and the thunder crashed. The singers in the second half could sometimes not be heard, such was the noise from the skies. The edges of the stage, exposed to the elements, were treacherous. Figaro, half hiding in a barrel for one scene, wisely decided to put the barrel on his head to keep off the rain. And then, as the thunder exploded and forked lightning lit up the Oxfordshire sky, the surtitles flashed up on the screen the singers' words: "All is peaceful, all is calm." Never has a line in a Mozart opera got such a laugh. It was, Garsington's owner Leonard Ingrams told me, the worst weather they had ever had. But it made for one of the most dramatic evenings I have experienced.

* The column called "Cultural Life", that runs on a Friday in The Independent, gives revealing insights into the cultural habits - and the cultural lapses -- of the great and the good.

The philosopher and author Alain de Botton revealed in a recent column that he had not been to the theatre for five years, adding that this was "shameful".

I suspect that he used the word tongue-in-cheek. If he had really thought it shameful, he would surely have done something about it.

But it is indeed strange that a philosopher can go for five years without attending an art form where the problems of existence are regularly debated, dramatised and laid bare.

Mr de Botton would not, I am sure, have admitted to not reading a book for five years. So why is it ok for an intelligent person not to go to the theatre for five years?

It isn't. It is, in the truest sense of the word, shameful.

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