August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.”
What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution.
Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.”
Put your idleness, if you’re fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings:
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875)
What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else’s industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Among the threads in Ford’s intricately woven “saddest story” is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it’s the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide.
Light in August by William Faulkner (1932)
Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.”
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946)
It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)
It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)
It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.”
Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967)
One of literature’s most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka’s August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite — or because of — what he describes as her “bony, empty face,” he reported he was “completely under the influence of the girl.”
The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974)
The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson’s hands, and one by Manson’s prosecutor that’s part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981)
Bradley’s nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting — self-inflicted, the legends say — of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history.
“The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter
Carter’s fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995)
A book — call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel — grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)
In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived — I’d enjoyed.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio