For four years, my beach books were not so much fun literary treats as vitamins assigned by my teachers. In order to study Pre-AP or AP English, students had to do a summer reading assignment along with a project or essay as an attempt to weed out students who weren’t willing to do extra work. I did my own reading on the side of course, but my summers were dominated by books like Pride and Prejudice and The Merchant of Venice. (Disturbingly, The Merchant of Venice inspired some vehement anti-Semitic rants among my classmates during class discussion. Then again, I went to school in a conservative Southern town, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.) Not all the titles were bad: The House on Mango Street made me fall in love with Sandra Cisneros and How to Read Literature Like a Professor introduced me to the idea of intertextuality. All in all, these assignments were burdensome and often boring, such as slogging through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Go into any major bookstore during summertime, and you will find a table labeled “Summer Reading” laden with classic titles that teachers have assigned to their students. If you find the table labeled “Summer Favorites,” you’ll get a dose of those titles publishers roll out just in time for beach season. Although I understood the reasoning for giving summer assignments (separating the wheat from the chaff, getting a head start on assignments since there’s so little time to cram everything in, etc.), I disagreed with this approach because it turned reading into a chore. It made students even more resentful toward reading and literature, because they saw the assignments as an infringement on their summer vacation. We don’t need to give high school students any more excuses than they already have for disliking reading literature.
But fortunately I finished high school, and when summer arrived after my high school graduation, I was free to read whatever I liked–a liberty that felt surprisingly strong and exciting. Rather than having to annotate Sophie’s World hanging over my head for two and a half months, I could read as many murder mysteries as I liked and as much pop culture fiction as I wanted. Granted, I had one small assignment for summer reading for TCU, but it was a tiny booklet with writings on the second amendment that required an accompanying 1,000-word or so essay. And without sounding vain, that was child’s play to me.
The beach book is a big market for those of us not laboring under summer reading assignments. Publishers lay out dozens of summer titles, and magazines and talk shows highlight their favorite choices for summer–fluffy books that require little mental strain while delivering maximum entertainment. These titles are opposed to James Joyce–you can find some other challenging titles at Publisher’s Weekly “The Top 10 Most Difficult Books,” none of which I have read or attempted to read (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/53409-the-top-10-most-difficult-books.html). Pick up this book, head to the beach, and relax listening to the waves while reading. But as Amanda Katz points out in her article “You Call That A Beach Book? Really?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/08/158220698/you-call-that-a-beach-book-really?), more and more we see less books that are literary candy in the hands of readers on beach towels. Why?
Part of me feels a pressure to read more serious books. When a friend and I were waiting in line to be announced as new Phi Beta Kappa members, I told him sheepishly that I had read The Hunger Games over spring break. He gave me a withering look. Since then, among my English and writing peers and professors, I only admit to reading things like The Fate of the Romanovs and poetry by obscure Polish writers. But that hasn’t diminished my desire to read books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’m sure has been ostracized from the high literature pantheon since being handpicked by Oprah, or Tana French’s Broken Harbor, even though Tana French should get some merit for having one the Edgar Allan Poe award for her outstanding first novel, In The Woods.
But enough of me and my secret guilty pleasures of mass market fiction. Maybe we should admire these people who eschew the overwhelming beach book trend and actually read those one or two books they’ve been saving all year. Much as I hate to admit it, I often put aside reading when I want to read because I’m just so busy and overwhelmed. Because my work involves reading and critiquing student writing, and my major is all about reading at least a book a week and writing at least 8-10 pages a week, when I have free time, my brain can’t seem to find reading a pleasurable pastime or escape. So when summer comes, people with normally hectic lives take some time off to finally get around to that pile of books that’s steadily grown over the year or start ticking off some titles on that to-read list that’s only gotten longer. Yes, we all merge on the bestseller list, but there’s nothing wrong with reading those niche books that get shunted to the side for not being in the lowest common denominator. For example, once I get my hands on it, I’ll be reading Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe then moving on to Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel.
Unfortunately, before that I’ll have to read some books (13) for my honors thesis such as A Concise History of the French Revolution by Sylvia Neely, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and The Language of Genes by Steve Jones. There’s a good chance I won’t get to Sharpe or Botton until I graduate in December. Who says I have to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy? I think we’re all just fine reading what we enjoy. Our lives are filled with reading reports for work and squeezing in that extra hour to catch up on e-mail. When we finally take time to ourselves, we should read those books that interest us and engage us, no matter what books are put before us. Good reading is determined by the individual, not the masses. Reading taste as individualized and varied as musical taste; we should feel free to read what we enjoy, not what’s in vogue.