I’ve never understood the concept of “Summer Reading.” When I hit my twenties, I noticed that newspapers and magazines printed articles about reading during the summer in the run-up to Memorial Day. This didn’t make sense to me. Why should summer make a difference to sticking your nose in a book?
It certainly didn’t to me. Someone once called me a “reader beast” because I’d carried a passion for books from childhood into my adult years (it was actually an astrologer who said this, not a librarian). I always had a book within reach at home when I was growing up, and when summer came the only thing that changed was where I did my reading.
My northern California suburb had a community pool surrounded by lush lawns, and since this was the 1960s, that meant I not only went swimming, but I slathered my skin with suntan oil and stretched out on a colorful beach towel on the lawn to work on my tan. I always brought along a book, though since it might get splashed with water or oil, I only brought paperbacks from my own shelves, not library books.
I went on a James Michener kick when I was in high school, lugging the fat tomes to the pool in my bag along with a bottle of Coppertone. These were great because it took forever to read them, and I never had to worry about running out of something appropriate for poolside reading. Once I got home, I had other books to dip into, saving Michener for days on the lawn.
Of course, I brought many books with me when my family took summer vacations, but I didn’t change what I read. I still devoured historical fiction and works about the history of California, my special passion, even in junior high school. Being the reader beast I was, I did have to listen to my parents telling me to stop reading and look at the scenery. (If we visited a historical site, they didn’t need to say this at all.)
My reading habits didn’t change as I got older, entered the working world, and got married. I still lugged lots of books with me when we went on vacation. I then began to understand that the concept of summer reading was very much aimed at couples with children who, while on vacation, could enjoy the lighter reading they might not get to in their busy daily lives. I didn’t have children, but I watched this phenomenon with my friends.
After my husband’s death I threw myself into work and a strenuous reading schedule, trying to keep grief at bay. The first summer after I was widowed, I visited some friends out of state, and finally realized what summer reading really meant.
I read a lot of mysteries, in addition to history and biography, but I only took juicy murder mysteries with me on that first post-widowhood vacation. When I returned home in a much better place, I realized that a change in seasonal reading habits is a mental and emotional respite, a clearing of pathways that might be hard to manage otherwise.
I also see how this works now that we are in the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve watched the young families in my neighborhood struggle with finding balance for their children–and themselves–when they were stuck at home. With restrictions lifting, and some neighbors packing for long-delayed vacations, I can see that the link between lighter summer fare and the freedom it symbolizes is even stronger than ever.