The Ambitious Joy Of Summer Reading

glasses

If you’re curious, I can describe in vivid detail the experience of dissecting a frog in middle school science. It was a small trauma that quashed my ambition to become a doctor. And yet, I have no memory whatsoever of being assigned summer reading throughout my years in school.

I recently saw an article that tracked summer reading programs back to the 1890s, so it’s likely my peers and I, who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, were given an obligatory list of titles to page-turn between our dismissal in June and our return to school after Labor Day. From the start, these initiatives were intended to encourage children to read during the off months and develop a lifelong love of books. They still are, though they now have the added goal of reining in what is known as the summer academic slide.

Math homework was another story, but I never needed incentives or coaxing to read. I’ve been a voracious devourer of books for as long as I can recall. There were, of course, assigned books for English class during the school year. Those were a bonus. Likewise, any books we may have been asked to read in the summer would have blended into the stack I had already chosen to read on my own.

Summer reading simply meant that I had more freedom and time to do it. It was what I looked forward to most once school came to an end, that and heading out on my bike after I got home from camp. Summers were the chance to while away the hours in the library, discovering all sorts of new and interesting things, some more appropriate than others, and to sit in the park beneath the shade of the forsythia tree and read until I had to go home.

Alas, grown-up July-August seasons are different. Though idea of summer reading inspires thoughts of relaxing with a good book while at the beach or away on vacation, it is not the same as the reading cycle I enjoyed for two luxurious months during the summers of childhood. In fact, it is no different from the wonderful pocket of reading hours I manage to carve into the week year-round, hoping to be uplifted, enlightened, enriched, or entertained.

As such, I find myself gripped by nostalgia when I spot the “Summer Reading” signs on tables at the library and bookstores this season. The recommended titles are often a mix of light, fast-paced stories one can toss with insouciance into a beach bag or carry-on tote for the plane. Even if we’re not heading anywhere, the books still promise to carry us to far-off places, worlds, and lives. And they transport me back to the summers of my childhood, to the local library and to the corner of my room in which I’d curl up with a book until it was time to turn off the light.

My reading has been heavy of late. Since Pesach, I’ve been making my way through a stack of Holocaust-related fiction and memoir. I’ve picked up other books, too – classics I’ve longed to read, or re-read, as well as some modern titles whose reviews intrigued me. Come autumn, I may well switch gears. I am where I am reading-wise, for now.

No matter how far my age distances me from the summers of my childhood, books continue to anchor me, carving out their own moments in time. In their way, they both  predict my future and find their place in my memory. They also define the present, continuing to shape the person I am.

So here we are, on the cusp of the months defined as the season of summer reading, thanks to school administrators and booksellers across the country. My list is long and ambitious, and I suspect yours is, too. But therein lies the joy. Let’s celebrate it together.

P.S. At the moment, I’m reading Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, about a former slave who becomes a slave owner, for my book club. After that, I’m planning to pick up Elizabeth Erhlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir that explores the mysterious connection between food and love. But who knows which book my heart will choose next?

 

What are you reading now? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

 

In Praise of the Dictionary

 

dictionary

When I teach writing to young students, one of the first things I tell them is that I keep a dictionary by my side when I read. I do this for one simple and obvious reason:  so I can look up the meaning of words I don’t know.

The surprise in their eyes is priceless. At first, they can’t believe it’s true. There are those among them who are convinced that adults are familiar with every word in the English language. I guess some folks are, but I assure them the average human – even a well-read one – is not.

I explain that this habit of mine goes beyond the necessity of understanding what I’m reading. I happen to enjoy learning a new word or reacquainting myself with an old one I haven’t used in a while. Keeps the mind supple. It also gives me the happy glow you get after a good meal.  I want my students to get excited about it, too, so they’ll see the looking up of words as a means to broadening their horizons. That’s why I tell them how much I love dictionaries, which are all over our house – on bookshelves and the table next to my bed, even near the cookbooks in the kitchen. They are my constant companions because reading is something I do in all sorts of places.

I’m aware that some of the dictionaries in my stash are outdated, like the  Webster’s I bought in college and the American Heritage edition I acquired for my last full-time job. That’s why I got myself a new one last year. It’s heavy and lovely and a number of the definitions have tiny pictures accompanying them. I keep it on the coffee table in the living room. But I haven’t recycled any of the old ones. I can’t seem to let them go. I like to suggest to my students that they treat themselves to a nice one, too.

Yes, I say to them, “I know the standard English dictionary is available online.” I also know that as vast as it is, it takes up no room that way, which would free up our coffee table for other things, like coffee cups. When I must, I avail myself of the resource, like when I’m reading in a doctor’s waiting room. It would be impractical to carry a dictionary with me wherever I go.

But the cyber edition is just a means to an end, while a paper dictionary has endless potential for serendipity. Only within its pages can you stumble upon the word chantey (a sailor’s song, sung while working) out of the corner of your eye while looking for the meaning of chapman (chiefly British usage, a peddler). It’s delightful when this happens. I could get lost in the Cs alone.

Mostly, I love that dictionaries allow us to hold the diversity of our language in our hands, laying the vast quantity of words out before us, like a Viennese table with a million plus treats to choose from.  I share this thought with my students, hoping they’ll catch my enthusiasm. I promise them that growing the number of words in their vocabulary gives them enormous power to frame their world (Which way do I turn to save the universe?), not only the practical ability to share their specific feelings about their new baby nephew (I am besotted with you.) and homework (I’d like to defenestrate my textbook, but won’t.).

Besides, there’s always a new word to learn – slang or technical jargon,  words borne of world events and cultural watershed moments. I tell them it’s good to keep abreast of change. We humans are forever creating language, helping it to evolve and grow. It’s kind of a superpower, really. I suggest that they read more about that in Andrew Clements’ chapter book Frindle. I read it with my boys when they were young and am grateful I did. It’s still one of my favorite stories from their childhood.

When they’ve finished Frindle, I encourage them to open a dictionary – not in their servers, but in their hands – at home, in the library, or at school.  Smell the ink on the page. Then, I tell, them, behold the low-lying fruit and grasp at all the delicious words they can.