A Brief History of Summer Reading

When the days get longer and the temperature starts to rise, books start appearing. Sunscreen-dappled paperbacks are bundled into beach bags and backpacks, sprinkled on picnic tables and dropped into the crooks of hammocks. Like its siblings come summer blockbusters and summer songs: Summer reading season has arrived.

Something about these dog days, more than any other time of year, invites readers to bury themselves in a book—and not just any book, but one that’s lighter, more fun, and different than their usual fare. There is more transportation. “Why summer reading? No one has Winter readings, or Fall readings (which I think will have an echo in the very autumn) or even… Spring readings,” critic Clive Barnes thought in The New York Times Book Review in 1968. “But summer reading – like the Statue of Liberty and motherhood – is always with us.”

This has been true since the early days of book review, which published it. first special issue Featuring “Books Suitable for Summer Reading” on June 5, 1897, and has continued to issue an annual guide almost every year since then. Recommendations in that first issue included books on “Travel and Adventure” or “Garden, Flowers and Birds”, ranging from memoirs, history and biography to poetry and essays. There were “A Group of Female Novelists”, “Fiction by Famous Hands” and “Novels by Some New Men”, as well as “Noteworthy Long Stories” and “Books on Many Themes”. And, just for good measure, the editors also included the 50 Best Books of 1896.

What appears to be normal now was a completely new phenomenon then. The idea of ​​reading different types of literature at different times of year dates back centuries—for an early example, see William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”—but summer reading as we now know it America emerged in the mid-1800s, an emerging middle class fueled by innovations in book publishing and a growing population of enthusiastic readers, many of whom are women. And this rise of summer reading coincided with the birth of another cultural tradition: summer vacation.

“The novel is a direct product of the summer habits of the American people appointed to read on the piazzas of mountain and seaside hotels and on the shadow side of farmhouses that take ‘city boarders’,” Book Review Reported in 1900. “Half a century ago moving to the country or changing the family residence during the difficult months hardly thought other than by the rich and fashionable.”

But things began to change in the mid-1800s. The privilege that was reserved for the wealthy became a possibility for a growing group of upper-middle-class and middle-class Americans. While they didn’t have palatial summer estates or money for a month-long European tour, they could take some respite from paid work. And they were eager to use this potential as a marker of their growing social standing.

An increasing number of middle-class Americans flocked to the resorts and opulent hotels spread across the United States, which were connected to urban centers by an expanding network of train lines. “Wherever the railways went, there was likely going to be a summer resort at the end of whatever the rail line was,” said Donna Harrington-Lucker, professor of English at Salve Regina University and author of “Lucker.”Books for the Idle Time: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading,” said in a phone interview.

Publishers saw this new wave of summer travel an opportunity to consolidate a traditionally weak season for book sales and promote novels, which by that time largely had a low literary yield and a dangerously corrupt The effect was seen, especially for young women.

“Reading the novel was something that was highly questionable,” Dr. Harrington-Lucker said. “But gradually, from the 1870s to the 1880s and 90s, they manage to transform it into a decent, middle-class pleasure. Light novels, paperback novels, novels that were easily portable or read while lying under a tree: these were all embraced by industry tastemakers. “

The publishers’ goals were helped along by two other important developments, Wendy Griswold, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, explained in a phone interview. The invention of wood pulp paper in the mid-1800s, which was much cheaper to produce than paper made from linen rags, significantly reduced the cost of books. And literacy rates among American women — who were more likely to spend longer summers at resorts than their husbands, who often had to move back and forth from their city jobs — skyrocketed.

summer resorts provided Female Free from the prying eyes of husbands or patrons, with an escape from the strictures of everyday Victorian life. And they also provided the setting for a new genre of novel, designed specifically for and for this escape season.

The American summer novel, which began in the 1860s, was easily recognizable by a few key features—many of which may seem familiar to today’s readers. It happened during the summer at a resort or grand hotel. Its plot was “dedicated to the lovers … their adventures, their troubles, their mishaps, and their victories”, as Book Review wrote in the introduction to its 1898 Summer Reading issue. And it ended with an engagement or marriage, as the characters prepared to return to society.

It was easy to find a novel like this without breaking your spine. It was distinguished by its cover, which is usually made of paper and contains romantic scenes of summer. The Book Review reported in 1900, “A catchy title, colors, and photographic reproductions of a pretty gentle face are considered the perfect adornment of the cover of a summer novel.” “The rest of the public does.”

These books don’t just offer a quirky adventure for those who yearn to spend their summer in a whirlwind seaside romance. He also served as a kind of how-to guide for middle-class Americans who were traveling in the summer for the first time, and who were eager to prove they could this holiday by mastering the etiquette of resort life. were in the area.

The genre also provided an entry point for many female writers, who wrote some of the most popular summer novels. Blanche Willis Howard’s “One Summer”, set on the coast of Maine, was such a smash hit when it arrived in 1875, Dr. Harrington-Lucker said, that it was reprinted every year until at least 1900. And before writing “Little” Women,” Louisa May Alcott brainstormed several summer stories—all published anonymously or under a pseudonym—such as “Palin’s Passion and Punishment,” which follows a group of young beach vacationers. who hosts an orgasmic getaway after deciding to spice up a stale summer afternoon by eating hashish-laden bonbons.

These works were popular with the general public and regularly made their way into Book Review’s summer reading lists. But the recommendations were often filled with feminine warnings—closed in their own categories and referred to by The Times as “Light in Character” (1901), “Light Reading” (1907) or “As Light as Thistledown” (1911) been described.

Summer vacation grew and expanded dramatically in the early 20th century, thanks to the invention of the automobile and the introduction of paid leisure time. And summer reading became so established as an American pastime that it continued to thrive even during periods when the holidays were put on hold. “War affects and changes many things in curious and unexpected ways,” The Times reported in 1915, a year into World War I. “The latest manifold among its by-products is the appearance of signs that there is going to be a summer reading boom. Not even solely in books about war; in books of all kinds.”

The introduction of mass market paperbacks in the late 1930s made things more democratic. “The novelty of paperbacks is not only their physical form, but also that they were sold in drugstores and newsstands,” said 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. So in that sense, you can refer to the paperback as the ancestor of the eBook. It’s like that old Amazon Kindle ad where you can think of a book and you’re done in a minute. It’s the same thing with paperbacks.”

The physical book is not the only thing that has evolved. The type of books that reach the readers in summer has changed with the passage of time. In 1968, James Baldwin wrote in Book Review, readers are urged To connect with books grappling with the question of race, such as the works of Ralph Ellison or “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. In 1999, as Y2K, Recommendations of the Times This includes books on string theory and memes, along with select science fiction. From romance to mystery to fantasy to thriller, summer reading today has grown beyond the summer novel. The book review did not offer a selection of “Fiction by Famous Hands” or “Notable Tall Stories” on its own. 2021 summer list, But sports books, Hollywood tell-alls and true crime made the cut.

So what is it that makes something a summer book? “Summer, like every time, is a good time for good books and especially a good time for long books in which neither the author nor the reader feels rushed,” wrote Joseph Wood Crutch. in book review in the 1950s. “It’s a good time, and especially a good time, for anyone who wants to read for no reason except when someone wants to read it.”

Today’s summer reading often shares many characteristics of the 19th century works of Howard or Alcott. Books are pleasing. They take the reader away from their daily lives. And yes, many of them continue to feature romantically driven plots that take place in an American summer location—think Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novel or any coastal romance from Nicholas Sparks.

Most importantly, they captivate the reader with the prospect of long sunny days, freed from the constraints of everyday life and immersed in a literary world, whatever it may be. As explained by author Hildegarde Hawthorne in book review In 1907, the real joy of summer reading lies not in the novel itself, but in the choice to devote oneself to it.

“A deep peace fills your soul,” she wrote. “Here’s this delicious book and the whole day, both yours.”

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