Ah, the old days of summer reading. In my childhood vacations at Ocean City, almost every beach blanket had a portable radio tuned to By Saam doing his play-by-play from Shibe Park, and a paperback book purchased for 10 cents at a newsstand. Nowadays, of course, the only important beach item is a cell phone, and the day is spent gesturing to an unseen listener perhaps hundreds of miles away.
The tradition of summer reading began in the late 19th century with the growth of paid vacations. What to do with this new-found leisure? Without electronics, the only option was to read a book, and people prepared with lists of summer reading. A newspaper article published in 1872 recommended casual books which “the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pause, when . . . his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea. . . .” (The old writers were wordy.) Select a book, they tell us, simple enough to be read with the inevitable interruptions, and one that can be left unfinished when the summer ends. The book was merely an expendable adjunct to the vacation experience.
This recommendation of light reading was soon criticized as a hazard that would “drain the brain” and was seen as indolent as mindless TV is today, but attitudes soon settled on a laissez-faire philosophy that a person is entitled to read whatever they please on their own vacation.
The big change came after WWII as summer reading became much more serious. Ex-soldiers were becoming better educated on the GI Bill, and everyone was struggling to understand the causes and ramifications of the war. In 1960, Clifton Fadiman, a popular early TV panelist, published his “Lifetime Reading Plan” that began with the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh” and continued on with nothing that could be considered “light.” Moreover, many on the list were considered required reading by any educated person, and summer reading turned into a grueling summer homework assignment. Later, this tempered into the middlebrow novels like “War and Peace,” and Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth.” Reader’s Digest condensates were an acceptable shortcut for busy people. Reader’s Digest was big in those days as reading was seen as a chore to finish quickly, more like cutting the grass than strolling in a park.
In the 1950s, TV began the ritual of the summer reruns, forcing more people into book-reading. The topics followed whatever was generally popular at the time: psychology, theology, ecology, whatever. Now, except for the occasional e-book, it seems reading is fading everywhere, replaced by audio media now available through technology. It is mostly music, but also audiobooks read for you, and video soundtracks. It does seem to take effort to translate squiggles of ink into spoken words, then those words into mental images. Is anything about the process morally superior to any other process? Can we skip a step with impunity?