- by Barbara Keiler
I don’t mind snow (although I’d like it better if it fell everywhere except on the roads and my driveway), and the rebirth of springtime is inspiring, and autumn in New England blends crisp air and tart apples and leaves screaming with psychedelic color. In summertime the air turns sticky and sludgy, and the grass turns beige and patchy, and jogging leaves me more drenched than I would have been if I’d jumped into a swimming pool.
Yet summer is my favorite season, because summer reading is fun.
Associating summer with fun reading is a vestige of my school years, when reading during the academic term was imposed on me by sadistic teachers who obviously wanted nothing more than to torture students. Fall, winter and spring reading was homework, drudgery, assigned. Books were read with a pencil or highlighter in hand, and they were accompanied by quizzes, grades and fatuous analytical essays. In the summer, the pencils and highlighters got tossed into the trash, the exams were forgotten and the books were for me.
I was five years old the first time I participated in the summer reading club sponsored by my town’s library. Each child who read ten books received a special badge. I’d earned my badge before the end of June-and kept on reading.
By the time I was eight, I considered myself much too mature to participate in the summer reading club, but I still made weekly bicycle trips to the library to feast on books I didn’t have time for during the school year. One summer, I decided to read only books with heroines named Joan, since that was my middle name. (I couldn’t find too many books featuring heroines named Barbara, for some reason.) I recall one book I read called A Filly for Joan, which, if memory serves me, was about a girl named Joan who wound up owning a filly. I also read countless books about Joan of Arc, who struck me as fabulously cool despite the ghastly circumstances surrounding her death.
Another summer, I discovered the “Freddy the Pig” books by Walter R. Brooks: Freddy the Detective, Freddy the Politician, Freddy and the Men from Mars and many more. These were marvelously layered novels, written for young readers but threaded through with subtle messages about society and politics that remain as relevant today as they were when the books were written in the 1930′s and 1940′s.
I discovered Little Women one summer, and alas, reading it was not the transformative experience for me that it is for so many girls who grow up to become novelists. I found Meg boring, Beth cloying and Jo-the March sister aspiring-novelist girls are supposed to identify with-didactic and klutzy, plus she ended up with that creepy old professor. The little woman I wanted to be was Amy. She was pretty, she was talented, she never had to work as hard as her sisters, and she captured the heart of Teddy Laurence, the rich, handsome boy next door. Who’d want to be Jo when you could be Amy? But Jo was the one I was supposed to relate to, so I suffered a cognitive dissonance when I read that book.
The summer I was ten, I made the move from the children’s library to the adult shelves when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. From that point on, I spent my summers wallowing in coming-of-age novels (The Catcher In The Rye, The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), anti-war novels (Catch-22, Johnny Got His Gun), anti-authority novels (anything by Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan or Tom Robbins) and classic fem-lit (Fear of Flying, The Women’s Room, Up the Sandbox, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.) Not a single one of those books was required reading. No teacher or professor tested me on their content. Reading them was just about the books-and about having fun.
Now that I’m a published novelist, I understand that “beach book” is a marketing niche. Beach books are books you read for no other reason than to enjoy yourself. I treat myself to beach books year-round-when the autumn leaves are blazing, when snow is piling up outside my windows, when the first tender green spikes of daffodils poke through the newly thawed earth in the spring. No matter what the season, whenever I pick up a book to read just for fun, it’s summer again.