Stephanie Cohen argues at Acculturated that we should ditch summer reading lists, especially for kids:
Today, every June, newspapers, magazines and websites, along with librarians and teachers, post their must-read summer book lists for students—100 must reads, books for introverts, Bill Gates’ summer reading list, a light summer reading list, a counter-cultural book list, or a banned books list—the variations are endless.
From Milwaukee to Miami, reading clubs and contests featuring prizes are kicking off with names like Librarypalooza. Parents head to the library and the bookstore to find a few of the listed items for their sons and daughters, but often their kids don’t care for the books that were picked.
In contrast to these longwinded lists, Cohen recommends a more flexible and enjoyable reading plan:
Tropical license means throwing the bookshelves wide open and letting children dive into piles and piles of books, some of which they may love, hate, not finish, or never forget; others will make them burst into spontaneous laughter or tears, or encourage them to become deep sea divers or zoologists … parents need to give their kids the “license” to explore.
I would agree—and in fact, would argue that adults should largely follow the same rule. It seems we can easily force ourselves into reading books that we’re rather unhappy with, or bored by. Many of us read not out of joy, but out of a sense of compulsion—because certain books are “good” for us.
But summer should be an opportunity to branch out, to find new things, and to exercise some “tropical license,” as Cohen puts it. We ought to “dive into piles and piles of books,” which we can either treasure or laugh at or forget, and we ought to enjoy the process thoroughly.
This has been my goal for the summer, and it has led me to some interesting reads. Here are the most recent five:
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
I loved the beginning of this book, and then found myself incredibly disappointed by the end—and have a sense that most other bibliophiles who read it will feel similarly. Nonetheless, the characters are intriguing and quirky. The contrast offered throughout between physical books and the blossoming world of technology is also interesting to consider.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
This classic was a book to savor—to read slowly, and thoughtfully. Stegner’s exploration of pioneer life in the Northwest is poignant, thoughtful. But it’s more than this: it’s also a deep and considerate look at the pains and pleasures of marriage, the differences that can divide us or draw us closer together. Highly recommend.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Worried at the start by this book’s length (820+ pages) and rather slow beginning, my first hesitancies were quickly relieved as Catton’s witty narrative unfolded. Written as a parody of the 19th-century novel, this book’s fascinating cast of characters are all interwoven within an astrologically metaphorical plot. It has the elements of a historical novel, a whodunit, and a romance. I finished it in a matter of days.
Fierce Convictions, by Karen Swallow Prior
This biography of Hannah More is well worth reading: the English poet, pamphleteer, essayist, and novelist was an essential member of the 18th and 19th-century abolitionist movement. She was friends with Edmund Burke, Dr. Samuel Johnson, William Wilberforce, and countless other key thinkers of her day—but brought her own wit, vivacity, and piety to the reform movements of the time. Prior captures much of her zeal, though I still felt by the end that the depths of More’s character remained a bit obscure and fuzzy amidst all the facts and chronology. All the same, it’s time more people read about More’s work and life.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
This one I’m still reading. Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch won a Pulitzer Prize last year. It was an interesting read, moody and introspective, with many elements of a Dickensian novel. But the protagonist, Theodore Decker, was rather difficult to like: an opaque, blasé, apathetic young man. This book has a similar feeling of Dickensian hyperbole, the same dazed and rather half-hearted protagonist… but at least thus far, the plot seems more intriguing. My guess is that Tartt’s protagonists have this two-dimensional character and lackadaisical outlook on purpose: that she’s making a point, perhaps, about the millennial generation, or about the world we live in. Perhaps I’ll have a better idea by the time I finish this book.
Reading in the summer is about finding new favorites, and letting yourself read whatever piques your curiosity—not limiting yourself to the “classic” (unless you want to), but rather exploring new genres, intriguing bestsellers, curious subjects or authors.
It’s too easy to fall into scholastic lists, and to lose the joy of exploration and adventure that are integral parts of reading. We can, instead, use our summers to let the creative and moral imagination bloom forth again: to set aside work and serious reads, and to delve into works that truly delight or excite us.