Reading in the dog days should never be dogged reading. Just as summer is for recreation, so also is it for recreational reading. Light reading material, however, should not be lousy reading material. The aim of reading is for enrichment even when it is for enjoyment. It is always preferable to engage in reading that is relaxing and stimulating rather than reading that is relaxing and stultifying. Readers at leisure should mind what they read for pleasure, for much can be reduced to pulp by pulp fiction. The good news is that the dime novel can be worth its weight in gold and the mystery thriller a mysterious edifier when written by the right writer. It behooves every reader, then, to learn to distinguish between execrable drivel and excellent drivel.
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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the houses across the road was painful to the eye. It was hard to believe that these were the same walls which loomed so gloomily through the fogs of winter. Our blinds were half-drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter which he had received by the morning post. For myself, my term of service in India had trained me to stand heat better than cold, and a thermometer at 90 was no hardship. But the morning paper was uninteresting. (“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”)
Among the lords of light literature, Sherlock Holmes towers. There is not much mystery about it, either. It is really quite elementary—my dear Watson. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892-93 in the Strand by Arthur Conan Doyle, provide remarkable cases in Mr. Holmes’ remarkable career, including the nearest instance of the previously quoted popular misquote (the word “Elementary” is spoken by Sherlock Holmes in closest conjunction to his saying, “my dear Watson” in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” where they are separated by fifty-two words). The Memoirs not only include such classics as “Silver Blaze,” the “Resident Patient,” and the “Naval Treaty,” but also present the Master’s earliest problems in the “Gloria Scott” and the “Musgrave Ritual” together with his “Final Problem.”
Though the glory of the mysteries recorded in the Memoirs is no mystery, there is yet some mystery surrounding the enduring effects of these memoirs. They, together with the rest of the Writings, possess an atmospheric mystique that imparts a strong illusion of reality, rendering characters more tangible, crimes more terrible, and conclusions more triumphant. The overall result is that the stories of Sherlock Holmes conjure up a viable world for themselves with a real iconography—the fireplace, the pipe, the revolver, the violin, creeping fog, rushing hansom cabs, stiff corpses, subtle criminals, the outré, the exposé—that together frame a universe of danger and delight. The stories are unquestionably timeless, allowing readers to enjoy the intrigues of a Victorian era when chivalry was not yet dead and fellowship conquered all.
The greatest mystery present in the Sherlock Holmes stories is, certainly, Sherlock Holmes himself. He is a puzzle of a man, full of contradictions and inconsistencies, a problem in and of himself that cries for solution. Holmes is a dispassionate machine commanding a melodramatic kingdom, scientifically replacing drama with science in the most dramatic fashion. He is at once magician and logician; both sluggard and swordsman; a civilized Bohemian; a cold-blooded musician—in short, a romantic rationalist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the world sixty Sherlock Holmes mysteries; but more importantly, he gave the world the mystery of Sherlock Holmes.
Recommended Edition: The copy on your bookshelf. Or, if you are one of the few who do not yet own these stories, this edition with the original Strand layout and illustrations by Sidney Paget is very serviceable.
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Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat
Most readers worth their salt entertain a sincere appreciation for entertaining reading. Such readers hold high esteem for high adventure on the high seas, for scintillating satire, for fantastic farce, and for daredevil heroes too dashing to be dashed on the rocks of disaster. Most books are unable to deliver on all of these levels, but there are a few who can. Mr. Midshipman Easy by Capt. Frederick Marryat is preeminently one of these swashbuckling few, brandishing bright prose, tremendous spirit, sharp humor, and a penetrating look into the humors of human nature.
This unique naval novel is a rollicking comedy set in the regimented context of a British man-of-war in 1836. Mr. Midshipman Jack Easy, a young officer of nobility serving in the Royal Navy, is one of the most endearing and enduring of heroes in the log of seafaring stories. Jack is sent off to sea in order to be righted of the social sophistries embedded in his brain by his eccentric father, and navigates the brutal and beautiful realities of sailors, ships, and skirmishes with a philosophic fortitude that is hilarious to behold. He is a bold mixture of the innocent inquirer and the cunning conspirator, who always lands on his feet and claims the last laugh.
Mr. Midshipman Easy is one of those impossible stories whose un-believability is its irresistibility. There is no shortage of exotic and exciting marvels, such as African voodoo curses, duels involving three, ships struck by lightning, musket balls and powder kegs, petticoats for flags, death-defying cruises, heart-pounding elopement campaigns, conniving cloak-and-dagger priests, an army of escaped convicts, mad philosophers, murderous mutinies, shark attacks, violent family feuds, drunken mishaps, and a thousand other delectable wonders and intrigues too numerous to mention. As a satire, Mr. Midshipman Easy is magnificently silly and serious at the same time, embodied by the gentleman-rogue at the helm of this indomitable little book, teeming with laughs, lessons, and life—which is why it holds a place of honor in the halls of light literature.
Recommended Edition: Heart of Oak Sea Classics
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Dracula by Bram Stoker
As a fixture in the firmament of light reading, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a surprisingly profound analogy of spiritual struggle that, like its villain, goes straight for the jugular. Modern readers are easily thrown off by this gothic tale, for the modern expectations of modern existence vanish in Dracula. Suddenly, superstition edges science while religion trumps superstition, leaving latter-day men cowering before legendary monsters. The only certainty is blood. Relearning primal fundamentals requires the new age to move backwards from science, to superstition, to religion. The resulting clash of the natural and supernatural is a testimony of truth, even if Dracula is a tale of terror.
Count Dracula is a vivified corpse of a fifteenth century boyar. This nosferatu rises from an ancient tomb with unnatural powers, deadly patience, and the calculation of a warlord. Contrasting the vampire’s hateful solitude, ties of love and loyalty bind those threatened by this satanic spawn. The party’s leader is Professor Abraham Van Helsing, physician and metaphysician. When the effects of vampirism are detected and medical remedies fail and scientific theories crumble, Van Helsing turns to the alternative. He festoons doors and windows with garlic until the dispensation is procured to wield the ultimate weapon—the Host. Armed with the Sacred Species, the friends drive the fiend over land and sea, foiling his purpose to infect humanity with everlasting corruption.
Overcoming the trends of their industrial times, these heroes find that tradition and superstition can, together, provide the basis for something far more potent than science—Faith. The men and women of this story suffer bravely under the scourge of an incomprehensible evil so that, in the words of Van Helsing, “the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters … we go out as the old knights of the Cross.” If Dracula captures the malicious attitude of the enemy, it also captures the martial attitude of the embattled faithful—which makes it no light matter even if it is light material.
Recommended Edition: Ignatius Critical Edition