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Even Summer Reading Has a History

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
August 17, 2021
New York Public Library Digital Collection

Ever wonder where the concept of summer reading came from? It seems to be understood as light reading. If I’d thought about it, I guess I would have assumed it came from the break in the school year. During the summer we don’t have to think as hard. As to when the concept became common, I would have thought maybe after World War II.

Well, there is actually a much more complicated and specific history of summer reading, and it started much sooner than I would have thought. As I recently learned in a New York Times article by Jennifer Harlan, as early as 1897, the NYT Book Review had a list of “books suitable for summer reading.” These included novels, but also memoirs, poetry, essays, and biographies, and books on travel and gardening.

But why the idea of summer reading, or “hammock fiction,” as it was sometimes called? Apparently, summer reading can trace its start to the idea of summer vacations, which started to become possible for the middle class around the middle of the nineteenth century. As more people had the luxury of taking some time off from work, railroads made travel easier to the resorts and grand hotels that were being built at the time. Not only was taking a trip in the summer relaxing, it was seen as a sign that you belonged to the class who could afford it.

Publishers helped to spur the idea of summer reading, and printing with wood pulp paper as opposed to paper from linen rags also made for a more affordable product. Retailers were looking for ways to take advantage of the trend, too. In an ad in 1874, Macy’s even offered to ship your books directly to your summer destination.

There were specific types of novels that seemed to flourish, especially in the early years. As early as the 1860s, summer novels took place at a summer getaway typical of the time and had a romantic plot. In some ways, these novels were an entry point for female writers, and even Louisa May Alcott wrote some, though they were published under a pseudonym.

At the beginning, and popping up every now and then over the years, was a backlash against the idea of reading for pleasure. As early as the late eighteenth century, “summer reading” had already found a critic, in the essayist Vicesimus Knox, who made the misogynistic pronouncement that for those who indulge in such light reading, it tends to “vitiate their morals and womanize their spirits.” In an article from the Boston Globe, there is a quote from an 1890 Globe issue, saying that the idea that books read in the summer should be light, “…is largely responsible for the vast amount of utterly empty literature that is dumped upon the newsstand and book counters of the country.” Some were also of the opinion that novels were “dangerous” for young women.

There were various types of pushback against the criticism, and a 1907 article in the New York Times stated that, “A professional woman needs not so much rest as a change of mental occupation.” Even now, one will come across someone denigrating “beach reads,” but readers happily follow their own inclinations, and settle down to relax.

Of course, there is another entire story to be told about summer reading lists for children and adolescents. Around the 1890s, libraries began to put out reading lists for the younger set. The role of encouraging children to read over the summer has continued to this day. I fondly remember the summer trips to the library, filling out a paper with the books I’d read, and receiving a reward. I don’t remember what any of them were any more, but I do recall the desire to work for them. I was happy to see that my granddaughter was just as excited to enroll in the library’s summer reading program, although the prize was somewhat ill-defined.

Schools also gave out reading lists for the summer, and some continue to do so. Sometimes the reading is required, and other times the books are suggestions. They might be something that would prepare you for the next school year, or they might supplement the regular curriculum. Whatever the reason, some students will faithfully read the books, but some will resist, feeling that their summer choices should be their own. There might be some kind of added incentive to doing the reading, other than self-improvement. When I was in high school, for those of us not athletically gifted, reading those books was a way to get points toward a coveted letter for a letter sweater. I wonder what inducements might be offered now.

So, after learning all of this, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read this summer, and how it might fit into this tradition. I’ve shared the covers below. I didn’t read any of them at the beach, or even in a hammock. I’d say it’s a mix of light and serious, but all novels, and all things I really wanted to read.

Rebecca D’Harlingue
Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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