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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.

BORIS KULIKOV for The Boston Globe

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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Today we think of summer reading as a modern category—invented by savvy publishers or self-defensive readers, something that gives us permission to tote lightweight, lowbrow novels to the beach. “Summer reading” suggests that we know there’s an alternative—serious winter reading, say—and that we’ve embraced these light books simply because of the hot weather. It’s the perfect excuse. And at least we’re not watching TV.

But that we were already calibrating our reading by the season in 1894 makes it clear that summer reading is not a modern invention at all. By the time that librarian tabulated Boston’s reading habits, the phenomenon was already several decades old. In fact, this habit of matching breezy reads with our hottest months was a symptom of a more profound cultural development of the 19th century: the invention of the modern American vacation. And the changing ways we’ve seen summer reading—first as an indulgence, then as a vice, and now, somewhat surprisingly, as a source of pride—says a lot about our changing attitudes toward just what leisure should be.

***

During the early stages of American history, the very idea of a vacation would have struck most people as foreign. Only the elite—Northern industrialists, Southern plantation owners, and, of course, the European aristocracy—enjoyed long summer escapes. But as historian Cindy Aron has shown in her book “Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States,” that began to change in the middle of the 19th century.

This change depended on economics—a middle class of managers and clerks could afford to take vacations—but it also depended on new ideas about the value of vacationing. “Employers began to worry that their employees needed time off to avoid brain fatigue,” Aron says. “There was a huge discussion about this in the newspapers.”

In 1855, for instance, The New York Times ran an editorial urging the middle class to relax more. “Thousands never leave their office or warehouse, except on Sundays,” the paper warned, adding that such dedication would eventually damage one’s family, one’s body, and one’s mind. “The happiness of life,” the paper concluded, “is much more in a good stomach and a capacity for small pleasures, than in any amount of stocks, and bonds and mortgages.”

The rest of the country soon came to share this sentiment: The best way to work hard was to build in breaks. Summer resorts and elaborate hotels began springing up all over. The Civil War slowed this process—during the conflict, many resorts were converted into hospitals—but America soon returned to expanding its recreational infrastructure. In 1869, to take one of the many examples in Aron’s book, the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad ran its tracks right up to the gate of the Grand Central Hotel, a new resort nestled deep in the Allegheny Mountains. A trip from Washington, D.C., used to take four or five days; now it took 15 hours.

These new conveniences weren’t perfect—one rider complained that the “gentlemen’s smoking car” would be more accurately described as “the loafers’ groggery”—but the new resorts made up for it. The Grand Central Hotel offered visitors not only the famous White Sulphur Springs, but also a series of gardens and walking paths, a partially covered swimming pool, a dining room that could seat 1,200 guests, and “one of the largest and finest ball-rooms in America.”

But what did vacationers do in those gardens, or around that pool, or after a vigorous game of lawn bowling? From the very beginning, they read. In a list of travel tips in 1874, the Globe saved its best tip for last: “Don’t forget to take some books with you.” It’s not clear how anyone could forget, given how actively advertisers promoted books as a vacation staple. In one giant summer spread, next to its picnic baskets, yacht chairs, bathing caps, and croquet sets, Macy’s promised to have “all the light literature of the day for SUMMER READING.” The department store even offered to ship the latest titles directly to your resort, just as soon as they came in stock.

Based on the contemporary ads and essays about summer books, it’s clear that the first vacationers did prefer their literature light—contemporary, plot-driven, and, ultimately, forgettable. Take “Dolores,” a novel written in 1875 by “Mrs. Forrester” and advertised as one of that year’s best “New Novels for Summer Reading.” “Dolores” tells a soapy story of forbidden love and resolves it through a grisly carriage accident. The book isn’t good—sample line: “‘Never mind me’ (in an agonized voice). ‘For God’s sake go and get help!’”—but it’s certainly breezy. And that was key for the earliest summer readers. Even the rare non-novel had to be unchallenging. One publisher marketed a series of musical biographies to summer audiences—books on Beethoven, Handel, and Chopin—but assured readers that “THESE ARE NO HEAVY BIOGRAPHIES.”

Today, this 19th-century focus on lightness seems amusingly explicit. But while these days we take holiday reading for granted, those all-caps advertising claims reflected what were then relatively new theories of vacationing. Each trip needed to be both relaxing and fun, if for no other reason than to prepare you to work harder, once your vacation ended. In the same way, readers in the second half of the 19th century wanted their vacation reads to be effortless. The Chicago Tribune, just before it unveiled its favorite summer reads for 1872, put it this way: The best summer book was one “the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.”

***

As the 19th century came to a close, vacations became even more popular. And that meant debates over the purpose of a vacation became more popular, too. Pure self-indulgence came under threat; religious resorts grew in number, and even secular critics argued that vacations should focus on self-improvement. “Work was one of the ways the middle class defined itself,” Aron says. “Eventually, vacations began to put the middle class’s norms of discipline and hard work at risk.”

For summer resorts, this led to a new commitment to virtuous and proper vacationing. (Towns along the Jersey Shore began posting the following notice: “Do not go through the streets in bathing costumes. It is coarse and vulgar, and is in violation of the city ordnance.”) And in terms of summer reading, it led to a backlash against purely pleasurable books. “It has come to be an accepted notion that in summer a person’s reading must be as light as his hat and as thin as his coat,” one critic observed in the Globe in 1890. “This belief is largely responsible for the vast amount of utterly empty literature that is dumped upon the newsstands and book counters of the country.”

This critic went on to bash both summer readers (“People who read summer literature in the summer read it all the time”) and summer reading (“Such books paralyze thought, sap the intellect, and, in time, drain the brain as empty as themselves”). Similar articles cropped up everywhere: Summer reading was now too slight, too wasteful, too enfeebling, no matter how warm the weather.

But this crusade against summer reading didn’t last for long. Perhaps it was because the practice had become so established—by 1897, The New York Times Book Review had begun compiling an annual list of the 100 best summer books. Perhaps it was because libraries had started summer reading programs for children. Perhaps it was because our attitudes toward vacations would soon shift again. As Aron demonstrates in her book, the first decades of the 20th century saw vacationing expand to immigrants, African-Americans, and the working class.

Whatever the reason, by the start of World War I, summer reading no longer seemed worth squabbling over. “The Summer, by our custom, is the time when one loafs,” one book reviewer noted in 1915. “But if a man enjoys history, essays, sociology, in the Winter, he can enjoy them in the Summer.” This was summer reading’s last major shift: It became a more flexible and welcoming category, with readers able to peruse serious literature without also needing to attack other people’s beach reads (or without needing to abstain from a beach read or two themselves). 1890s-style moralizing would flare up every once in a while, but, for the most part, the literary culture settled into a summer truce.

Today, almost a century later, that truce still holds. Everyone from Oprah to NPR champions summer reading, but they do so in increasingly inclusive terms. When The New York Times Book Review tackles summer reading nowadays—it dedicates a full issue to the subject every year—it covers not only summer fiction, but summer sports books, summer cook books, even summer comic books. Teachers assign summer reading to their students; even colleges often assign a summer book to their entering class.

At the edges of the peaceful kingdom of summer reading, battles about how to spend our time still rage. Some people insist on bringing their BlackBerrys to the beach; some people while away their summers sprawled in front of the latest reality show. But summer reading has come to offer an ideal space in the middle, equally accepted as a way to escape the pressures of work or as a course in self-improvement. As you plan your reading for these last days of summer, there’s no longer a need to be defensive. Instead, you can be pleased to be joining a venerable, beloved American tradition—the right to relax with a book in the sun.

Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail craig.fehrman@gmail.com.
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