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04 June 2007

Summer Reading or The Whale

I've always been a bit curious about the idea of "beach reads" or summer reading. Do people who don't typically read readily devour books while on vacation? Are avid readers more likely to pick up a trashy, guilty-pleasure novel during July and August when the sun glares so brightly at the beach that it's difficult to read the words on the page? Would a bibliophile actually want to get greasy sunscreen marks on a book?

I don't want to discourage people from reading, but I don't know that many non-readers who suddenly become readers during the summer months. I know that in some locales it is standard to assign a Summer Reading list. I was never required to read anything over the summer when a teenager, although I do remember one summer when my older sisters (they were probably 13 or 14 and I was 9) had a contest to see who could read the most books during the summer. They happily burned through numerous paperbacks. I abandoned the contest early in my struggles with my book, a story of frontier life titled A Lantern in Her Hand. I remember nothing about the book, only its title. Now, one of my sisters reads a lot of throw-away romances and the other hardly reads anything that isn't work-related. And I read all the time. I think I'd beat them both in a rematch.

Summer tends to be a time when I seem to finish more books, but I think it has less to do with the season than it has to do with getting to the middle of the year and realizing how many books I have started. Since it's usually a ridiculously high number (approx 15 started but not finished since Jan. As I said -- ridiculous!), I typically vow to not start another book until I finish my books in progress. I usually have as much luck with that resolution as I did with the summer challenge with my sisters years ago.

I do remember one extreme reading summer. I was in summer school, trying to take as many classes as I could so I could finish my BA by December, when I was due to run out of money and had lost my funding. I took four American Lit courses -- a lower-level Modern Amer Lit survey, an upper-level American Poetry since 1945, a class on the 20th century novel (mostly Faulkner and Hemingway) and a class on Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. It was this last class that I dreaded. The professor was a stickler for good writing -- I owe most of what I learned about writing from her; any mistakes are because I have forgotten the rules, not that she didn't teach them. She was a task-master, demanding full participation and possessing highly advanced skills for ferreting out anyone who hadn't read even one page of the assignment. Imagine my fear than when I saw the reading list. Surely we wouldn't read Moby-Dick? We only had 4 weeks. But, there it was on the list: that lengthy novel with entire chapters devoted to obscurities like uses for whale blubber sprinkled amongst the hundreds of pages of absurd megalomaniacal attempts to kill a big, predatory fish.

I worked in a bar busing tables that summer. This was a bar frequented by townies, not college kids who had mostly abandoned Midwest College Town for the summer. In between slopping suds and burning fries in the fryer, I'd drink cheap beer and read a few pages. Most afternoons I spent on a beach blanket--the nearest thing resembling something to do with a beach I saw that summer--in the front yard of the dismal student rental, drinking more beer and reading Melville's masterpiece.

I loved Moby-Dick. It was the best summer "beach" read ever. I've been thinking recently that I should re-read it. Maybe I'll even read the chapters on whaling and making oil from blubber.

2 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

I don't really get the "summer reading" thing either -- and I don't really like to read outside -- reading on the beach doesn't sound like fun to me. I can concentrate so much better indoors. That's a great Moby-Dick experience -- I should re-read it sometime too.

Camille said...

I loved this post. I, too, have always been confused by summer reading for adults. For kids, I get it. The non-readers are assigned a few books to keep them in practice. But for adults, first of all, I have no more extra time for reading in summer than I do during the rest of the year. And I also agree that most adults who don't usually read don't start making big lists of TBRs for the summer. :) I do like reading on the beach (I'll read anywhere!) but I also don't suddenly switch to trashy mass-markets just because it's summer.