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The Boston Globe

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Ideas

How America learned to love summer reading

Our long, tumultuous affair with light books reveals volumes about our changing relationship to leisure.

One August day, more than a hundred summers ago, The Boston Globe sent a reporter to the library to find out what the city was reading. The year was 1894, and a helpful librarian supplied a list of books checked out the day before: one title from history, two from science, none from biography, and a staggering 52 from fiction. “I could tell by looking at a library record what season of the year it was,” the librarian remarked, “even if the date was not attached.”

What the librarian knew was this: As the days got hotter, Boston’s readers sought out more and more novels. (A January day was far more diverse: The library checked out five titles from history, 10 from science, four from biography, and 35 from fiction.) There was also a shift in the type of novel. “The fiction read in summer is almost altogether of the light sort,” the librarian said. “Standard authors and serious writers of modern fiction are rarely called for.” Even a century ago, in other words, readers were reading differently in the summertime.

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