Swann Summer Reading List 2019

As an auction house that has specialized in rare and antiquarian books for nearly 80 years, it is unsurprising that our team loves reading. What better circumstance to do so than under a tree, on a porch, or lakeside in the summer? So grab a fan and a comfy chair for this year’s roundup of recommended reads.

The Last Palace by Norman Eisen

Nicholas D. Lowry, President & Principal Auctioneer

I have been waiting to read this book when I have enough time to sit down and truly absorb it. From a historical, personal and professional point of view it hits almost every area of interest in my life. It is a sweeping story that encompasses Czechoslovakia (where my family is from and where I lived for years), the story of a family who wanted to surround themselves with the beauty and trappings of a profitable life (a concept that is familiar to auctioneers who often cater to that kind of clientele) and the vast sweeping political and historical changes that swept through Eastern Europe beginning with the Second World War. 

Unless and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Daile Kaplan, Vice President & Director – Photographs & Photobooks

Nothing says ‘summer’ like the discovery of a great author or novel. A satisfying season dedicated to Elizabeth Strout led to Carol Shields, a Pulitzer Prize-winning (who knew?) American-Canadian author. After reading Unless, a tender and transcendent story that speaks to women’s identity and creativity, I promptly ordered everything I could find. Now I’m reading The Stone Diaries, which Newsday characterized as “A kind of family album made into art.” Imagine: a photo-literary combo!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Andrew Ansorge, Vice President & Controller

A wonderful dystopian novel about life after a global epidemic wipes out most of humanity. Brilliantly written and engrossing with terrific characters.

The Life and Work of Wright and Zoe Howes and the Story of U.S.iana by John Blew

Rick Stattler, Director – Books & Manuscripts Department

This is a recent biography of an Americana dealer, Wright Howe, who was most active in the 1940s and 1950s. He’s known to everyone in the Americana field as the author of the handy one-volume bibliography U.S.iana, but has otherwise remained a somewhat obscure figure. This biography is an impressive piece of research, stitching together an entire life from bits of correspondence, interviews with his few surviving friends and relatives, and his published catalogues. It’s not exactly beach reading, but having done this kind of research before, I enjoyed seeing how it was put together–and it reads surprisingly well. It also features some poignant comments on the late dealer Bill Reese, who lent important assistance to the project.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Alexandra Nelson, Director – Communications Department

Octavia E. Butler had been on my need-to-read list for a while, but I kept avoiding her work because I wasn’t sure where to start and felt like I had time to get around to it. Then, in early June, just as I had finished binging nearly all of N.K. Jemisin‘s books, I stumbled upon a New York Public Library guide to Butler’s oeuvre, and I took their advice.

Kindred was published 40 years ago, but the issues of race and the American legacy of slavery that it contends with are brutally relevant today. While it’s reminiscent of the first-person slave narratives one may be familiar with, the time-traveling protagonist from a much more recognizable era creates an emotional immediacy, transforming an often historically-framed setting into a gut-wrenching ordeal. I was left wondering why I hadn’t read this essential book in high school, and wanting more of Octavia Butler. Luckily, I have the rest of her writing to look forward to, as well as a forthcoming edition of The Second Shelf‘s journal with a focus on her.

Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America by Martin Duberman

Christine von der Linn, Senior Specialist – Illustration Art / Art, Press & Illustrated Books

I look forward to diving into Martin Duberman’s Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America. I had the privilege of being one of the specialists for our recent path-breaking Pride sale, handling first editions, manuscripts, illustrated books, and archives. I want to further my understanding and contextualization of those rare objects and of the liberation movement as a whole.

The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear

Deborah Rogal, Associate Director – Photographs & Photobooks Department

This summer I have been devouring the excellent mystery series featuring the whip-smart Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. The series hits so many notes: a female protagonist who steps out of the norms of her period, a female author (this year I’m reading only works by female-identifying authors), historical fiction, and edge-of-your-seat mysteries. The series starts in the post-WWI period in London, and not only does the author piece together surprising stories, she also does an incredible job of evoking the long-lasting trauma and effects of war. I find the novels to be interesting, emotive and relevant, as well as good old-fashioned page-turners for a hot summer day.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Jennifer De Candia, Administrator – Vintage Posters Department

I was able to score an advance copy of the debut publication, Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, staff writer at The New Yorker. I highly recommend picking it up when it comes out later this summer. Her essays for the magazine are witty and insightful, and the new ones written for the book are no exception. I often find myself nodding along while reading her writing, as it eloquently articulates so much of what I’d been feeling. I especially loved her essay The Cult of the Difficult Woman, which analyzes the modern intersection of celebrity, feminism, and politics. If you’d like to get a taste of Tolentino’s writing before the book is published, I recommend starting with either How a Woman Becomes a Lake or Please, My Wife, She’s Very Online. Enjoy!  

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Kelsie Jankowski, Assistant – Communications Department

“This is the story of a nation–not a kingdom or a people–and so it begins, of course, with a white man.” I’m currently reading Namwali Serpell‘s debut novel, The Old Drift. It’s a sprawling tale of a family tree set in what is now modern day Zambia. Starting in 1874, the book tells the story of three different families–one from England, one from Africa, and one from Italy–through a matriarchal lens across several generations, and chronicles how, despite their different cultures and economic status, their lives are intertwined. The work reads as an epic poem with a chorus of buzzing mosquitoes providing their all knowing knowledge of Africa and its inhabitants as they look down upon the human race at the start and close of each chapter. It’s an ambitious tale and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Namwali’s writing, I suspect I’ll be sad once I’ve finished and left these characters’ world. 

The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

Leah Fletcher, Reception

A winding duplicitous weave of intrigue and suspense. Maybe not the most realistic of scenarios but definitely a fun read that you might not be able to put down. 

Blue Desert by Charles Bowden

Wren Krisztin, Digital Media Manager – Communications Department

“When you look overhead there aren’t any Mexican stars or American stars . . . it’s like a great biological immunity, with a meat cleaver of law shredding it, cutting it in half . . .” This is Charles Bowden in a 2005 interview with radio producer Scott Carrier a few miles from the US–Mexico border in the Sonoran Desert. Their conversation was a continuation of Bowden’s most seminal writing about the politics of place. First published in 1986 by the University of Arizona Press, Bowden’s Blue Desert is one part memoir one part reportage, overall a collection of environmental, humanist essays that follow the battles over land, water, resources and immigration rights in the Sunbelt during the last couple centuries. He reports back with hope, humor, chagrin and a sobering fondness for the region and its multitudes, from the expanding interiors of desert casinos to the narrowing realms of desert tortoises. (My runner-up? The Dispossessed by the speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, which tells the tale of a physicist who lives in an anarchist colony on a moon covered in deserts…)

Want more recommendations?

Check out our Summer Reading Lists from 2018 and 2017.

Martin Lewis, Tabloid Readers, drypoint, 1927.