Barges laden with hundreds of tons of coal drifted silently down the Mississippi, but often my view across America’s mightiest river was unblemished by any evidence of modernity. In the burnt light of a setting sun, it was easy to imagine a glimpse of Huck and Jim on their raft. Mark Twain’s words sounded fresh to me every evening: “Not a sound anywheres — perfectly still — just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe.”
Despite our pastoral setting, that summer I sat before the canon of American literature paralyzed with fear. In a foolish lapse of academic standards, I had been offered a job as an instructor at a small private college, and in a foolish fit of vanity, I had accepted. I taught composition and surveys of our national classics such as “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Great Gatsby.” My students wrote the usual essays about “Despair in ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ ” and “Hemingway’s Staccato Style,” essays that I reduced to bloody fields of red with all the indignant outrage of the newly empowered.
But beneath my bluster, I harbored shocking gaps of knowledge that filled me with apprehension. My spelling, rustic under the most relaxed circumstances, became downright primeval whenever I turned to the blackboard. In a sudden swell of amnesia, I would discover that I couldn’t spell “Thoreau” — or “Henry” or even “David.”
Asked by a student to recommend the best book by Santayana, I could think only of “Black Magic Woman” and then couldn’t stop humming it. During a discussion of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essays, I insisted that Ring Lardner was a fictional character. (That humiliation lay dormant for 15 years until I had lunch with my future boss at The Washington Post, Marie Arana, and her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, who had written a biography about Lardner, who, it turns out, was an actual person.)
Still, I loved teaching, both the panic of preparing for each class and the thrill of holding forth before students just a couple of years younger than myself. But my continued employment was predicated on my passing the final exam for a master’s degree in English literature and qualifying for a PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis. So even as I was struggling to stay at least one day ahead of my students, I was also studying for a test that would determine the course of the rest of my life. It felt like learning to swim and fly at the same time.
Given the unbounded breadth of the graduate school exam in American literature, that summer I decided that the best preparation would be to read “The Columbia Literary History of the United States.” This four-pound tome begins with “The Native Voice” and ends 1,200 pages later with “The Avant-Garde and Experimental Writing.”
It was a hot summer in the valley, damp and buggy. I read by the roar of a window unit that had mastered the sound but not the function of an actual air conditioner. Even after 30 years, my fading Post-it notes still give a sense of what I was up against with “The Columbia Literary History of the United States”: “Ironic contradiction in Cotton Mather’s mind,” reads one cryptic note. “Emerson’s poetic theory experienced some alteration,” reads another. By page 565, I seem to have given up. There’s a brittle scrap of paper on which I tried to compute how long this torture would drag on if I got through, say, 48 pages a day. How about 66 pages a day?
That was a guilt-ridden act of liberation, but it marked the beginning of my crusade against dreary summer reading. Later in life, when I worked briefly as a high school English teacher, I did my best to sabotage the department’s summer reading assignment. It was a typical requirement: Pick a few books from a list of Worthy Classics Vaguely Remembered by Middle-Aged Teachers and bluff through questions about them in the fall. So far as I could tell, it was an assignment designed to encourage either misery or deceit. I had allies in the English department, but there was an abiding concern that, left to their own native desires, our students might pick up “The Celestine Prophecy” or something by James Patterson.
I saw the ill effects of that good intention when my younger daughter entered high school. One summer, her assignment was Jack Kerouac’s 1957 roman à clef “On the Road.” She and I took turns reading it aloud while my wife drove us to New Hampshire. I began with enthusiasm, recalling my own experience with Beat poetry in college, but soon realized that the novel makes little sense to contemporary teens without a scaffolding of historical and biographical footnotes, which quickly turned the journey into a chore for us all. After we stopped at a Panera for lunch, we got back on the road again without Jack Kerouac.
Over the years, I’ve heard from so many people who burden their summer — or their children’s summer — with deadly reading projects. They begin from some puritanical impulse or misdirected ambition and then drag themselves through the steamy months with an enervating sense of duty.
This is not a test. Your summer reading will not be on the exam. You don’t have to improve yourself — or impress anybody. You need not succumb to the tyranny of your book club or the predictability of the bestseller list.
At your local library, there are experts eager to lead you toward titles you might enjoy. The clerk at your favorite indie bookstore has dozens of good suggestions. Even newspaper book critics who can’t spell “Thoreau” have been known to direct readers toward novels they’ll never forget.