It’s almost time to return to school – the sun is setting earlier in the evening, and CVS has fall products on display in an aisle I try to avoid when going into the store. But August, the “Sunday” of the summer, has its own joys, a slowing down as we approach Labor Day when we seem to take a collective breath.
I was in the perfect place to take a breath before returning to the hectic pace of a new school year. For many years, my oldest friend (we met in middle school) has spent much of her summer at the Chautauqua Institution in the southwest part of New York State. And after many generous invitations to join her and her family for a week, we finally went. We waited too long. Chautauqua, as she told me for many years, is a truly special place. Because it’s somewhat hard to describe the mix of beauty, education, the arts, and religion that seem to be pillars of Chautauqua’s nine-week season, I’m quoting from their website:
“The Chautauqua Institution is a not-for-profit, 750-acre educational center beside Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State, where approximately 7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 100,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.
The Institution, originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, was founded in 1874 as an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education.”
That’s the official description, but most striking to me after a few days on the lovely grounds, was the complete lack of commercialism. Chautauqua feels like a neighborhood of people committed to learning, exploring, and enjoying time with family and friends without the disruptions of billboards, chain stores, television (which must be there, but I never saw one turned on), or other signs of the “real” world.
The participants are up early, going to programs, warmly talking with people sitting near them, and enjoying musical evenings in the 4,000 seat amphitheater. Chautauqua’s commitment to exploration and curiosity is evident from the library’s central location on the plaza.
Among the programs we heard over the course of the week, the highlights were a concert by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, a lecture by Mr. Ma about the importance of culture in understanding other people, and a presentation by Barbara Stephenson, an American diplomat and head of the American Foreign Service Association. Stephenson spoke diplomatically (of course) about the challenges of international work and the role of music as a form of “soft power.” “When we make music together, we sometimes create a space of goodwill that allows us to take a risk, to set doubts, suspicions and even old enemies aside, to join hands as a world and walk together toward peace,” she said.
One day, I saw Ambassador Stephenson walking towards her hotel carrying a book so, naturally, I positioned myself to see what she was reading. This is it:
Not coincidentally I’m sure, Dennis Ross was also a speaker at Chautauqua last week. As a funny side note to this, I took the picture above (the one of her speaking) from the Chautauqua Daily. That’s our group sitting in the front row, right in front of the Ambassador.
My own Chautauqua reading was Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. It had been on my list since reading the novel’s glowing reviews earlier this year. It is an intense and smart novel. Two seemingly unrelated stories, one about a young editor who has an affair with a older and very successful author and a darker story about an Iraqi-American man who is detained in Heathrow on his way to Kurdistan, overlap in ways that aren’t obvious at first, but ultimately reward a careful reading.
The only downside of the trip was the drive – it’s about nine hours from our house to Chautauqua which inspired us to plan book store visits on both ends of the trip. Our first overnight stop was in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College. We enjoyed a wonderful meal at the Moosewood Restaurant and enjoyed browsing around Autumn Leaves, a good used bookstore with a lovely name in the central shopping area. I particularly like the cover of this book I saw in the store:
After our week in Chautauqua (which has its own small bookstore), we drove to Saratoga, New York, to place big bets at the racetrack ($2.00 per race except the one we risked – and lost – $5.00)! We were choosing horses based on their names, rather than their past performances. Our losses were to be expected.
Our other priority was to visit Northshire Bookstore, the new location of a store we love in Manchester, Vermont. The Saratoga store is as perfect as the one in Vermont. They created the same perfect environment where every book seems like one you might want to read.
The next day we drove a bit out of our way to visit the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Bookloft is in a small shopping center and, at first glance, doesn’t appear to be the well-loved gem that it is. But it’s equal to Northshire in its well curated inventory, staff recommendations, and perfect setting for browsing.
I leave you with a monkey that we saw during our travels. I actually forget where now, but when I saw him reading, I thought – this monkey should be in my blog! Happy reading and enjoy the end of your summer….