Last year I broke up with Summer Reading.
Truth be told, we were never going to make it. While I wanted in from a young age, the bedraggled girl with her nose pressed to the candy shop window, I knew it was not for the likes of me. It was for the affluent — those who fled the humid city for the beach or the islands or the private lakes for a month at a time. It was for those who sat in deck chairs and on beaches of white sand. I knew all that, but imbued with a love of books and addicted to the Summer Reading Lists that publishers and journalists gin up every spring, I have carried on for years, buying up titles, in the grand belief that, one day, it might be me in that deck chair. That one day, it might be me, luxuriating in the promised land of Summer Reading.
I kept up with all the lists; they are a reading project in themselves. There are the Beach Lists — who doesn’t have a beach? There are the Staycation Lists — all you need is a hammock, a weeping glass of ice tea, and time off. I have always been a little suspicious of the Must Read Lists, because you have to want to read what everyone else might be reading. The Dog Days of Summer Lists are annoying as well. They are for those who don’t have to work when it gets hot.
And then there are the Top 10 books to read during the lazy, sunny days of summer. How come I don’t get any of those lazy days? I ask, my attitude clearly deteriorating by August. I could also have asked, how come the majority of us don’t get any of those days?
On the positive side, Summer Reading is a boon for illustrators, because all Summer Reading Lists require an illustration or two. After all, one wouldn’t want to see a photograph of a red-faced mother feeding sand-encrusted peanut butter sandwiches to her sunburnt children in order to finish her Summer Book Club book or a photo of someone stretched out in the grass holding a book on high to block out the sun. Did you ever sit on the hard ground on a hot day in itchy, buggy grass, happily reading a book for any amount of time? I didn’t think so, because reality has little to do with Summer Reading, which is why booksellers leave it to illustrators to create Summer Reading nirvana. The pictures are lovely: ocean waves, swimming pools, lounge chairs, big happy suns, and icy drinks. Who wouldn’t want to be sitting in one of those chairs?
I do have good reason to suspect Summer Reading is a teensy bit snobbish. It starts with the image of my mother collapsing onto her bed on a muggy July afternoon after she had lulled the youngest to sleep so she could put her feet up and read the glossy women’s magazine she picked up at the grocery store on Friday night as religiously as she went to Mass on Sunday morning. It took her all week to finish that slim magazine, which is why, I think, she kept the glass doors of our bookcase locked against crayon-wielding toddlers. One day, she must have thought, I will read a whole book.
Then there was the summer I spent on the Cape as a babysitter or, in the words of my tony employer, an au pair. While this was not true — I am from the South Shore — she must have thought this exotic descriptor would brighten the hours I spent feeding her baby from jars of green beans and beige cereals while she read her Summer Reading books. Or maybe she liked referring to me as an au pair when her women friends arrived for cocktails at 5 o’clock, their men at work in the city. From these women, I learned that martinis never show up in Summer Reading illustrations because by the Cocktail Hour, Summer Readers have stopped reading.
After I had my own children, Summer Reading took on a new meaning: hours spent in libraries convincing them to check out chapter books they would actually read to meet the quotas required by their Summer Reading programs. My own Summer Reading happened late at night in bed.
The best thing about my failure to romance Summer Reading is that it leaves me open to fall and winter and spring. Rain days and snow days and mud days, quiet, invisible days, when the only reading expectations I have to meet are my own.Meg Ferris Kenagy is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Hingham, went to college in Los Angeles, and settled in Portland, Ore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.