SUMMER READING // Emily Larned

15 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I’ve been thinking about reading through a seasonal lens, and how its meaning, significance, and potential seem to shift — at least for me, as an academic and lifelong resident of the northeast US.

Fall Reading is studious, serious, or how-to, synonymous with back-to-school. Winter Reading is cozy and provisioned, a warm indoor retreat from the cold. The phrase “Spring Reading” conjures nothing. “Summer Reading” unleashes a torrent of longing for light-filled hours containing nothing but the time and space to read. I think of novels. Loads of them.

Ah, the “Summer Reading List,” distributed toward the end of the school year by optimistic academic institutions at every grade level. How many of us draft lists of our own, at the beginning of each summer, as we imagine (rightly or not) that we’ll have more time to read? In the summer I like to bond with a single author: last year was Doris Lessing (favorites are The Golden Notebook, the gothic horror The Fifth Child, the timely The Good Terrorist). Currently my summer author is Iris Murdoch (so far my favorites are The Nice and the Good and Under the Net).

Then the media outlets descend with their own dubious Summer Reading Lists. The NY Times Book Review 2018 Summer Guide suggests titles in the following categories only: Thrillers, Cooking, True Crime, Movies & TV, Romance, Travel, Music, the Great Outdoors, and Sports. Really? No regular fictional novels?

Is “beach reading” escapist reading, reading that transports? If you are looking for such a book, I recommend Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which time travels you to a terrifyingly not-too-distant future dystopian America, so maybe not so transportive after all. Or is “beach reading” reading for entertainment, lighter fare? Perhaps reading for entertainment is reading texts that don’t make us think. But perhaps that should be worded as texts that don’t insist we think. If we’re not thinking about what we’re reading, that’s on us, isn’t it, not the author or the text? I learned from The Guardian just now that the term “Beach Read” was coined by the publishing industry as recently as 1990, although the casting of novel reading as “sinful” dates back to the mid-19th century (Emma Bovary, anyone?).

Sinful, sinful reading. Reading all day, outside: in a park, in the garden, at the beach, in the yard, under a tree or an umbrella; reading on a blanket on the ground or on a canvas folding chair or on a chaise or in a field; reading on the slow-to-darken porch after dinner, late into the night. In the summer I give myself permission to read indulgently in ways I don’t (or can’t) the rest of the year. While the occupational and familial demands of the fall, winter, and spring are real, the emotional negotiation with the Yankee Puritan within may be eased over the summer months because summer reading can be folded into another activity: being outside. Reading outside is active recreation because now you are outdoors enjoying the fleeting season. It is practically a sport.

Endurance reading: book artist Barbara Tetenbaum’s current public art project The Slow Read invites readers to a summer-long reading of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. The project is accessed online at the rate of six pages a day, offering “a piece of culture in the form of a daily ritual, to be experienced slowly over time.” The Slow Read perversely replicates the dominant practice of reading in short spurts on a screen. At the same time, the fact that the narrative is suspended day after day after day expands the novel into something that engulfs your entire summer. There are nuances to the specificity of this reading experience, as after the installment’s sixth page you are brought back to the first page of that day’s selection. Of this uncanniness, artist and reader Linda Hutchins writes: “The feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever gotten from reading before, and even after I repeated the scenario multiple times today, it still catches my breath. It’s almost a feeling of light-headedness” (The Slow Read News).

Perhaps it is this opportunity for light-headedness, for catching one’s breath, is what summer reading is about.


Emily Larned won the “Book Worm” trophy from her childhood swim team (her mom made her join). She has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. Since then her work has been exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions. She is co-founder of ILSSA and Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.


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