If you have time for one more summer read, make it Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next: First Among Sequels (Viking, $24.95), which is actually the fourth sequel, not the first, in the madcap series featuring hard-boiled literary sleuth Thursday Next, a heroine adept at leaping in and out of novels in a single, narrative-warping bound. When she’s headed for “BookWorld,” Thursday loads her gun with “eraserhead cartridges.” Irrepressibly playful and relentlessly imaginative, Mr. Fforde comes at you with fresh highbrow hijinks on every page of every book, beginning with The Eyre Affair in 2001. Some readers will find it all too exhausting and silly, the absurdist streak too broad, but if literary horseplay amuses you and you can stomach a steady diet of witty allusions and the odd appalling pun, follow Thursday’s example and jump right in.
And then it’s back to school. Nothing in Anthony T. Kronman’s earnest and plodding Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale, $27.50) is remotely as stimulating as the epigraph Mr. Kronman lifted from A.E. Housman’s introductory lecture as professor of Latin at University College, London, in 1892: “The pleasures of the intellect are notoriously less vivid than either the pleasures of sense or the pleasures of the affections; and therefore, especially in the season of youth, the pursuit of knowledge is likely enough to be neglected and lightly esteemed in comparison with other pursuits offering much stronger immediate attractions. But the pleasure of learning and knowing, though not the keenest, is yet the least perishable of pleasures; the least subject to external things, and the play of chance, and the wear of time. And as a prudent man puts money by to serve as a provision for the material wants of his old age, so too he needs to lay up against the end of his days provision for the intellect. As the years go by, comparative values are found to alter: Time, says Sophocles, takes many things which once were pleasures and brings them nearer to pain. In the day when the strong men shall bow themselves, and desire shall fail, it will be a matter of yet more concern than now, whether one can say ‘my mind to me a kingdom is’; and whether the windows of the soul look out upon a broad and delightful landscape, or face nothing but a brick wall.”
You’re in a cab in midtown, monster gridlock, with monsoon rains, no umbrella, and the driver’s been talking as long as the meter’s been running. That same sense of rising panic—I’m stuck with the city’s most garrulous cabbie—wells up in the first few pages of Melissa Plaut’s Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab (Villard, $21.95). But then the traffic starts to flow, the rain lets up and suddenly you realize that the cabbie knows a thing or two—and how to tell a story. Sit back and enjoy the ride: As she crisscrosses the town, Ms. Plaut answers every question you’ve ever had about New York taxis.