Remember a long time ago when, as elementary students, we were given summer reading lists? Read 5 books from the list for one extra credit point. 10 Books for 2 points. Choose 3 books from the required reading list and have your parents sign-off that you read them. I loved my summer reading list. I read Hatchet and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlotte’s Web, The Outsiders. I would proudly present my sign-off sheet to my mother, who would ask me about what I’d read, to be sure I’d done it- “Who was your favorite character? What was your favorite part? How did it end?” This was before the internet and spark notes and Wikipedia, and in order to give a satisfactory answer, I had to actually read. But I didn’t do it just for extra credit or because I had to. I did it because I loved to read what was on the page and imagine it in my mind, the way I saw it, the way I interpreted it. I loved the way my heart would race as I worked through a suspenseful passage- when the pilot in Hatchet suffers a heart attack and Brian crash-lands the plane in the woods; when Fortunato realizes that Montresor is entombing him alive and shouts, “For the love of god!”. I became attached to characters and their plights, their joys, their successes, their weaknesses.
But then, as I got older and moved on to college courses, I let reading fall to a lower level of priority. I studied English and Creative writing, but I stopped reading for pleasure and read with an analytical approach, trying to emulate what I was reading in my own work, looking for themes and meaning, dissecting style and examining dialogue through a microscope. After I graduated, I rarely read. I fell in love with a man who hated to read (which should have been my first and strongest warning sign that it wasn’t going to work out). My books went on a shelf in the corner and I stopped buying new ones. I lost my library card. When I closed my books, I didn’t see that I was closing myself, too.
It wasn’t until my husband (the one who hates reading) and I separated that I picked up a book again. I felt the loss of companionship most in the hours of the night after my son went to bed, when the house was all but silent and there was no one to talk to. I was never really one for television, but heard that “Orange is the New Black” was popular. So I grabbed Piper Kerman’s memoir, and I was surprised that it took some time to fall back in love. I started slowly, a few pages at a time, and soon was holding my eyelids open with my thumb and forefinger as I followed her words on the pages into the early hours of the morning. I began to look forward to my time alone with the book. I finished it in ten days. Then I began reading Barefoot, a completely different genre with three complex and sometimes unlikable female characters, each facing their own crises, all searching for peace on the island of Nantucket. I read The Jane Austen Book Club and The Curse of the Kennedy’s. It is now almost July, and I’m halfway through my summer reading list. I’m very proud.
In two weeks, I’ll be on a plane with my son (someone help me) headed to Cape Cod. We have a cottage there, not unlike the one in Barefoot, which has been in my family for four generations (don’t get excited- it’s the equivalent of camping. The family didn’t even add a bathroom until 1975). When I was young, most of my summer reading was done in that cottage. I would lay on my cot in the loft with my book, the windows open and the hum of June-bugs and crickets carried in with the hot air. This year, in addition to my own summer reading (The Goldfinch, The Hurricane Sisters), I now have my son’s summer reading list, too. He’s only one, sure, but we can plan on some great books to read together. Every few days or so I find or remember a book from my childhood, like Caps for Sale and The Little House. I can’t wait to sit with him on our front porch by the pond and read to him- he already loves books, turning the pages and holding them himself. Yes, he also likes to chew on his books, but at least he’s showing interest, right?