Last summer, I was waiting in line at the pool snack bar when I noticed a girl with a copy of “The Great Gatsby” tucked under the shoulder strap of her bikini.
“Do you love it?” I asked.
She barely glanced up from her phone: “Nope. Just reading it for school.”
So much for an impromptu literary salon over soggy french fries. Still, the girl had my sympathy.
When I was a teenager, I was a book-a-day reader. Pat Conroy, Mary Higgins Clark, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood — you name the author, I devoured the book. And clung to it. All my babysitting money went to overdue fees at the library.
But as much as I loved my thrillers and domestic dramas, I hated having to read books for school over the summer. I remember one interminable drive from South Carolina to New Jersey, dragging myself, chapter by chapter, mile marker by mile marker, through a weighty tome. I still remember everything about the Flowers in the Attic series I read that summer, but I can’t tell you even the title of the assigned reading. It was a chore; V.C. Andrews was an education (to say the least).
Now that I’m in the driver’s seat, I’m even more ambivalent about forced literacy than I was back then. I love real summer reading: the kind that inspires my 11-year-old to beg for a later bedtime so she can finish “11 Birthdays”; or the kind that sends my 14-year-old onto the sunny porch with “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane.” Last year, my 17-year-old returned from a three-week bike trip with a worn copy of “Big Little Lies,” and I knew that book was as real to her as the Velveteen Rabbit was to his owner. It had been enjoyed by lantern light on a dozen different campgrounds along the California coast. Is there any better venue for summer reading than a sleeping bag?
But asking the average kid to read “The Merchant of Venice” or “A Tale of Two Cities” on his summer break is like presenting a big plate of spinach — no dressing, no croutons, no fork. Where’s the fun in that?
I know there are exceptional kids out there. I’ve met their parents. And I’m all for instilling a love of the classics, but that love is more likely to grow when school is in session. The teacher is the fork; group discussion is the dressing. The croutons come when a lightbulb goes off in someone’s head — when the quality of mercy is not strained.
If our goal really is to instill a love of books, that’s a different story altogether. Why not make sure kids have library cards? Why not distribute a list of recommended reading relevant to their age and the era we live in? (“Raymie Nightingale,” “Holes,” “Americanah ”) I’m not saying that “The Merchant of Venice” and “A Tale of Two Cities” aren’t important or relevant; I’m just saying they’re a heavy lift to shoulder independently. A lighter lift might spawn a true bookworm, as opposed to one who can’t wait to disappear back into the warm mud of her phone.
We should think about the structure of those vacation reading assignments, too. The summer before junior year, my older daughter had to read “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning history of the Great Migration. My daughter enjoyed reading the book. But annotating its 600 pages with pink Post-it Notes? Not so much. I understand that the teacher needs some way to gauge a student’s engagement with the text, but, in general, simultaneous reading and note-taking seems like the age-advanced equivalent of elementary school reading logs. That doesn’t cultivate an appreciation for stories or language; it just trains you to track Weight Watchers points.
My humble goal with my kids is to instill a love of entertainment — to show them how reading falls under the same umbrella as movies and TV and, yes, even Snapchat. If you don’t like a book, close it. Check out, download or listen to a new one. You would never force yourself to finish a song that makes your skin crawl; why should a book be any different? Reading should make you laugh, cry and feel understood. It should introduce you to people you wouldn’t otherwise know and transport you to someplace more interesting. Yes, it requires planning and brainpower. No, it’s not as simple as swiping through Netflix. But reading a good book can be as rewarding as watching all nine seasons of “The Office” (which my kids have done), and it doesn’t take 1,200 hours.
In our front yard, a pair of Razor scooters have been flat on their backs for so long that a hedge is growing up around them. I’m always on the brink of tossing these scooters in the garage — they’re eyesores, possibly dangerous — but then one of my kids will jump on one, take it for a spin around the block and not come home until dark.
I take a similar approach with books: lazy with a side of you-never-know. I leave them in messy stacks on the radiator, in the hallway, on the table, on the windowsill. Most of the time, my books collect dust or someone uses the inside back cover to test out an iffy pen. But every so often, one of my kids will pick up a book and disappear for a while. They might come back in 10 minutes, looking for a ride or a snack. Or they might not. This is the magic of summer.
Elisabeth Egan is the books editor at Glamour and the author of “A Window Opens.”