A brief history of summer reading

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When the days grow longer and the mercury begins to rise, the pounds appear. Pocket books smeared with sunscreen are stored in beach bags and backpacks, sprinkled on picnic tables and placed in the hollows of hammocks. Like their siblings the summer blockbuster and the summer song, they come: Summer reading season has arrived.

Something about these hot days, more than any other time of year, invites readers to bury themselves in a book – and not just any book, but a lighter, more fun, and more transportable book. than their usual rate. “Why read summer? We don’t have a winter reading, or a fall reading (which I suppose would resonate too much in the fall) or even… a spring reading, ”asked critic Clive Barnes in The New York. Times Book Review in 1968. “But summer reading – like the Statue of Liberty and motherhood – is still with us.

This has been true since the early days of the Book Review, which published its first special issue featuring “books suitable for summer reading” on June 5, 1897, and has continued to publish an annual guide almost every year since. The recommendations in this first issue spanned the gamut from memoirs, history and biography, poetry and essays, to books on “Travel and Adventure” or “Gardens, Flowers and Birds”. There were offers of “A Group of Novelists”, “Fiction of Famous Hands” and “Novels of Some Later Men”, as well as “Long Stories Notes” and “Books on Many Themes”. And, just for good measure, the publishers added the Top 50 Books of 1896 as well.

What now seems commonplace was a fairly new phenomenon at the time. The idea of ​​reading different types of literature at different times of the year dates back centuries – for an early example, see William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” – but summer reading as we know it now has appeared. in the United States in the mid-1800s, driven by an emerging middle class, innovations in book publishing and a growing population of avid readers, many of them women. And this boom in summer reading coincided with the birth of another cultural tradition: summer vacation.

“The novel intended to be read in the plazas of mountain and waterfront hotels and on the shady side of farms that house ‘city residents’ is a direct product of the summer habits of the American people,” reported the Book. Review in 1900. “Half a century ago, going to the country or changing family homes during the scorching months was hardly considered except by the wealthy and fashionable.

But in the mid-1800s, things started to change. What had once been a privilege reserved for the rich has become a possibility for a growing group of upper-middle and middle-class Americans. Although they did not have lavish summer residences or the funds for a month-long European tour, they could afford to take a brief respite from paid work. And they were eager to exercise this ability as a marker of their growing social status.

Growing numbers of middle-class Americans have flocked to the resorts and large hotels that have sprung up across the United States, connected to urban centers by an expanding network of train lines. “Wherever the railway went, there was a good chance there was a seaside resort at the end of the railway line that was there,” Donna Harrington-Lueker, English teacher at the Salve Regina University and author of “Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading,” said in a telephone interview.

Publishers saw this new wave of summer travel as an opportunity to bolster what had traditionally been a lackluster season for book sales, and promote novels, which until then had been widely regarded as an inferior literary subgenre. and a dangerous corrupting influence, especially for young women.

“Reading novels was very suspicious,” said Dr Harrington-Lueker. “But slowly, from the 1870s to the 1880s and 90s, they manage to reposition it as a distinguished middle-class pleasure. Light novels, paperback novels, novels that are easily transported or read lying under a tree: all these novels have been adopted by the taste makers of the industry.

The publishers’ goals were aided by two other important developments, Wendy Griswold, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview. The invention in the mid-1800s of pulp paper, which was much cheaper to produce than paper made from linen rags, drastically reduced the price of books. And literacy rates among American women – who were more likely to spend long summer spells in resorts than their husbands, who often had to commute between jobs in the city – soared.

Beach resorts offered women an escape from the stresses of Victorian everyday life, away from the prying eyes of husbands or chaperones. And they also provided the setting for a new genre of romance, specially crafted about and for this escape season.

The American Summer Novel, which began appearing in the 1860s, was easily identifiable by a few key features – many of which may seem familiar to today’s readers. It took place over the course of a summer, in a seaside resort or a large hotel. Its plot was “devoted to lovers … their thrills, their disturbances, their misadventures and their triumphs,” as the Book Review wrote in the introduction to its summer reading issue of 1898. And it ended with engagement or marriage, as the characters prepare to return to society.

Such a novel was easy to spot without ever cracking its spine. It stands out for its cover, usually made of paper and featuring a romantic summer scene. “A catchy headline, colors, and a photographic reproduction of a pretty maid’s face are considered the correct adornment for the cover of a summer novel,” the Book Review reported in 1900. “The public does the rest. . “

These books not only offered a vicarious adventure for those who longed to spend their summer caught in a swirling seaside romance. They also acted as a sort of handy guide for middle-class Americans traveling in been for the first time and who were keen to prove they belonged to that vacation echelon by mastering the etiquette of resort living.

The genre has also provided an entry point for many female writers, who have written some of the most popular summer novels. Blanche Willis Howard’s “One Summer”, which takes place on the coast of Maine, was so successful when it was released in 1875, said Dr. Harrington-Lueker, that it was reprinted annually until 1900. at least. And before writing “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott produced numerous summer stories – all published anonymously or under a pseudonym – such as “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” or “Perilous Play,” which follows a group of young people. beach vacationers who embark on a multitude of orgiastic getaways after deciding to spice up a lazy summer afternoon by eating hashish candy.

These books were extremely popular with the general public and featured regularly on the Book Review’s summer reading lists. But the recommendations were often laden with feminine cautions – compartmentalized into their own categories and described by the Times as “light in character” (1901), “light read” (1907), or “as light as thistle down” ( 1911).

Summer recreation evolved and expanded considerably in the early part of the 20th century, largely thanks to the invention of the automobile and the introduction of paid vacations. And summer reading became so established as an American pastime that it continued to thrive even during times when the holidays were suspended. “Curiously and unexpectedly, war affects and changes a lot of things,” The Times reported in 1915, a year after the start of World War I. “The last of its by-products is the appearance of many signs that there is going to be a summer reading boom. Not quite in the war books either; in all kinds of books.

The introduction of the paperback to the mass market in the late 1930s further democratized things. “The novelty of paperbacks is not only their physical form, but also that they were sold in drugstores and newsstands,” Leah Price, professor of English at Rutgers University and author of ” What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading, “said in a phone interview.” You could buy them anywhere on a whim rather than consider going in this specialty store, of which maybe there was only one in the town you lived in. So in that sense, you could see the paperback as an ancestor of the ebook. It’s like that old Amazon Kindle ad, where you can think of a book and in a minute you have it. Same thing with paperbacks.

The physical book isn’t the only thing that has evolved. The types of books that readers consult in the summer have also changed over time. In 1968, James Baldwin, writing in the Book Review, urged readers to engage in books dealing with the issue of race, such as the works of Ralph Ellison or “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. In 1999, as the year 2000 loomed, The Times recommendations included books on string theory and memes as well as a selection of science fiction. Today’s summer reading has extended far beyond the summer novel, from romance and mystery to fantasy and thrillers. The Book Review didn’t offer any “Fiction by Famous Hands” or “Noteworthy Long Stories” selections on its summer 2021 list, but sports books, Hollywood revealers and real crime made the cut. .

So what makes something a summer book? “Summer, as always, is a good time for good books and a particularly good time for long ones when neither the author nor the reader is in a hurry”, wrote Joseph Wood Krutch in the Book Review in 1950. “It’s a good time, and a particularly good time, to read what you want to read for no other reason than the fact that you want to read it.

Today’s summer reading often shares many characteristics with the 19th century works of Howard or Alcott. The books are captivating. They take the reader away from his daily life. And yes, many of them continue to feature romantic storylines that take place in an American summer venue – think Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels or one of Nicholas Sparks’ coastal romances.

More importantly, they entice the reader with the possibility of long sunny days spent without docking the daily stresses and immersed in a literary world in whatever form. As the writer Hildegarde Hawthorne explained in the Book Review in 1907, the real pleasure of summer reading does not lie so much in the novel itself as in the choice to devote itself to it.

“Deep peace fills your soul,” she wrote. “Here is this delicious book and all day long, the two of you.”


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