Heading into my final year of high school, I realize I have much to look forward to. I’ll be (hopefully) passing my driver’s test in a week and, in addition, have my own car for the year. I’ll be taking many anticipated, higher-level courses that I’ve been thinking about since I was a freshman. I’ll be a leader in many of the clubs and activities I’ve been in for the last three years. Yet, despite all these grand new beginnings to kick off my new year, I know that there is also one grand ending: summer reading.
Having taking honors/AP English for all four years, a part of my summer has always belonged to the written word. Though there are novels I willingly pick up on my own when the warm months roll in, I can’t attest to having always been enthralled by the books handpicked for me. When I first heard about summer reading from my twin sisters, who were just heading into ninth grade at the time, I was appalled. Isn’t summertime designed for children to relax? I argued. To take a break from books and education? Of course, I’d watched movies with characters that had summer reading and even, ironically, read books with this same act of atrocity. But I never thought that I, a measly eighth-grader, would have to suffer through it. It wasn’t even that I hated the idea of reading; as I stated before, I willingly pick up books, quite often in fact. It was more the idea that I would have to read a book that someone else wanted me to read. It was the idea that I couldn’t choose what I wanted to read.
So, in the summer bridging middle school to high school, I begrudgingly opened the letter declaring the books I would have to read that summer. A Separate Peace by John Knowles (which helped me properly learn how to spell separate) and Matched by Ally Condie. Imagine my surprise that Matched was a New York Times Bestselling novel for teenagers. I had been expecting Moby Dick (which would have been a repeat, considering I
read sparknoted it in eighth grade) or The Scarlett Letter (that, actually, would come later). A Separate Peace fell into my more expected category of summer reading, but imagine my surprise again as I enjoyed that novel even more than Matched.
Matchedâ€”for those of you who haven’t read itâ€”is about a girl living in a world where the government controls her every decision. It’s about choices, really. Choices we have, choices we don’t. It was a very fitting book at the time, looking back on it. Cassia, the main character, feels like she has no choice in her life, and I felt like I had no choice in what book to read. I now know that summer reading is put into place so that reading levels don’t sharply decline, but for those of us who do choose to read, I realize that, just because you have the freedom to make a choice doesn’t mean you will pick the right choice. That’s not to say that teachers and librarians always pick the perfect novels for us to read. Perhaps, however, giving in to reading a novel that we would never pick up ourselves but holds high acclaim for another person is a choice we should be willing to make. Even when it’s not for a classroom, where the books are often connected to a predetermined syllabus, we should be open to other book options from different people, even book critics.
With this new mindset, I approached my sophomore summer reading with open arms (well, okay, slightly less closed arms). Imagine my disgust when the book fell right into my literary summer reading stereotypeâ€”The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, was exactly the sort of novel I was afraid of reading. Long and tedious, often dwelling on the most mundane of things, not spending enough time on the most interesting things. I’ll admit, at first I was intrigued. The oldest fantasy of all, before Harry Potter and Twilight ever even had their first word. Merlin, Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table: every common fantasy element started with this very book. What failed me about this age-old story was that, when I finished the last word, there was nothing to take awayâ€”no message, no theme. Sparknotes puts up a good argument for chivalry, but is that a message I want a book to leave me with? Chivalry?
I know it’s a classic and I swear I’m not one of those teenagers who tears down classic novels for the sake of tearing down classic novels (I’ll only do that with other teenagers in my presence). And I have certainly read my share of novels that have no basis of a theme whatsoever. But I must admit that I found it rather odd that a book I had to read for education taught me nothing more than about crazy old wizards and unicorns. Perhaps on my own time, yet when I have to type twenty pages of notes (twenty-one, actually) I’d like to read a book with more substance. Even if it is deemed a classic by whomever the classic-deemers are, is it too much to ask for a novel that leaves a classic impression on my education?
The summer of my junior year (a summer I barely made after narrowly surviving Sophomore Lit), this very question was answered. And they say that there are no wrong answers, but my goodness was this question answered wrongly. The novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. That’s more accomplishment that I can say for myself, so who am I to tear down the novel? Well, before I do, let me first put it on a pedestal. I’m not lying when I say this novel did leave me with more substance than The Once and Future King allowed: there were observations Dillard wrote about in her book that were so spot on, so enlightening, I can’t help but to believe she must have been the only true competition for that 1975 Pulitzer Prize. What truly failed me about this book was that there were no characters and no story. I know it is nonfiction. I know that no nonfiction novel contains any sort of story or characters like the ones we fiction-lovers hold dear. But I didn’t even get a name. At least there’s Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, even E. Coli (Biology textbook anyone?). Nonfiction novels may not have the same level of familiarity as fiction does, but at the very least I would like to know a name. When I read a book, I need some sort of connection. My physics textbook always feeds me words and definitions; Annie Dillard’s novel was a far cry from thermodynamics and nuclear physics. In fact, it did feel more fiction than anything. Could it have been so hard to have introduced herself to the audience?
And then there’s this summer. This final summer before my summer reading ends for good. The two books I am currently readingâ€”The Help by Kathryn Stockett and And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseiniâ€”are exactly what I always hoped for. I would have picked them up by choice, the messages (notice the extra s there on the end) are profound and deep, the stories and characters are engaging and real. It’s no’ wonder they are both bestselling novels. Not every great novel is a bestseller though, and being a bestseller is hardly a measure of a great novel. Here I am easily ready to judge any book thrown my way, yet I have never had the daunting task of picking out a novel for an entire class to read, learn from, and enjoy. And simply because I am reading, learning from, and enjoying The Help doesn’t mean the student sitting next to me will. What is the formula for a perfect summer reading novel? Does it matter if the students enjoys it, so long as they read it and learn from it? Does it matter if they learn, so long as they are reading and enjoying? All three do make the perfect recipe, but it is rare for any novel, not simply a summer reading novel, to contain all the ingredients. I guess the only thing left to say is for any teacher or librarian or educator that chooses summer reading booksâ€”I commend you for being able to make such a tough choice every year.
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