When someone says “summer reading” I think of both enjoyable books and school assignments. It’s a crazy seasonal mindset that we have that there are books that are better suited to the warmer months, vacations and the beach.

I blame school for this.

No matter what grade you were/are in there was “school reading” that you did in fall, winter and spring that tended to be serious stuff. Most kids I knew did NOT read during the summer. I read a lot. Too much probably.

Nowadays, every local library seems to run a summer reading program for kids. Our town library has the theme of pirates this year. I did it for a few years with my sons. You read lots of books and get little prizes along the way. Those prizes were a big motivator for my youngest who loves competition. The only thing I didn’t like about these programs was it seemed really focused on consuming mass quantities of books. The more you read (or pretend to read), the more stuff you get.

I read in the summer because I wanted to read and had the time to read, but I still don’t know how to instill that spirit in someone who doesn’t get pleasure from reading.

I wrote on another blog  about a poll that NPR is running to determine the best “beach books”. They give a list of 200 titles to choose 10 from and there are lots of good books there, but the list is heavier on “literary” fiction than I think you will find if you survey the blankets for books at the Jersey shore this month.

There were some literary reads that I did in summer and really enjoyed. I was a kid who worked my way through authors. I read a ton of Steinbeck one summer, everything by Salinger another year, a summer’s worth of Hemingway.

Either I am more distracted these days or I have less time or my ability to read has eroded because I am lucky to get through three books during the summer lately.

For the first 47 years of my life, I had the summer off because I was a student or a teacher. Yeah, I had summer jobs, but I was “off” from my regular routine. It’s a luxury that I only really appreciated when I left teaching to be a 12 month employee and realized that even a CEO can’t take off the whole summer. Of courses, teachers and students don’t get paid for that summer off, so it has a big downside too.

If I really think about it, the summer reading I loved most as a kid would never make any NPR list. I loved reading comic books. I read very eclectically too. I had boxes of Archie comics, Classics Illustrated, Superman, Batman, Richie Rich, Silver Surfer, and lots of other titles. My mom broke my heart (and possibly my bank account) when she gave away most of my comics to some neighborhood kids while I was away at college because she assumed I was “past that.” I associate comics with summer.

I also loved to read magazines and for summer Surfer and Surfing, Field and Stream and Popular Mechanics were favorites. Surfing magazines were the first subscriptions I bought with my own money. Even though my surfing life never went much further than the Jersey shore, a hand-me-down, dinged Greg Noll surfboard and many hours spent hanging around the Ron Jon surf shop on Long Beach Island in New Jersey (not far from Surf City), I did think of myself of as a 1960s surfer with blond hair, baggies

My fields and streams were in suburban NJ too, but I never tired of catching sunnies, perch, and the occasional bass, catfish or trout. My field work was of the tracking variety rather than the hunter side. I did shoot a rabbit once while hunting with an uncle and it had a devastating effect on me. Never wanted to go again, though I continued to read accounts of hunting with great enthusiasm.

Though I never built most of the things that Popular Mechanics had plans for in its pages, I always was building stuff with my friends over the summer. Clubhouse, treehouse in the woods, our first skateboards, skimboards for the beach and, of course, a go kart.

An episode of Our Gang/The Little Rascals inspired my first one built from cast-off baby carriage wheels and parts. What a death trap that was to roll down a steep street. I wanted to build and race a Soapbox Derby style car, but that just wasn’t a possibility of my childhood. We even tried building a motorized cart using an old lawn mower engine and bicycle chain drive. It was a disaster that could only go if no one was sitting in it, but a lot of fun to work on one summer.

jawsThe actual books that I really would put on my summer reading list are titles that I not only read during a summer, but that had some seasonal connection. I have already written here about Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and he would have several books on my list.

I clearly remember sitting in my backyard reading Benchley’s Jaws the summer of 1974. That is a perfect summer book in its readability and content. If you only saw the Spielberg film (a great film with terrific editing), you should pick up the book this summer.

Back in 1972 or 1973,  I spent the summer living in Watership Down and realized that there was a reason I was once told that one of my totem animals was the rabbit. Their anthropomorphised epic odyssey to find a new home had a whole culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology that I loved more than I ever was able to get into the much more heralded Middle Earth of Tolkien. To this day, my wife and I will comment upon seeing rabbits eating at the side of the road at dusk that it is time to silflay.

Perhaps in a similar way, I got caught up back in 1979 with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all the books in the series and other by Douglas Adams. I was teaching at a junior high then and I was able to get some students who said they disliked “science-fiction” to read and enjoy the book which I still find to be laugh out loud funny.

The following summer, my big reading discovery was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole which made me want to visit New Orleans. Unfortunately, it was the New Orleans of the 1960s that I wanted to see, so I was 20 years too late. That title is from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, is an educated sloth who still lives with his mother at age 30, and his “picaresque” adventures in the French Quarter still makes me laugh out loud. I’ve read the book a few times and listened to the audio version (read wonderfully by Arte Johnson) a few times too.

For me, the best summer books are not so different than the best books because they are works that I can get lost in to the degree that I forget the world around me for a time.  Movies can do the same thing for a few hours, but books can do it for many hours.  Those best books also have a bit of an obsessive, can’t-put-it-down quality, that is almost frightening when it takes hold of you. Summer reading is all about escape.

(Inspired by this earlier post on summer books)

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