Why we need a summer read

A summer read can be fun, compelling, intriguing, heartwarming. Every once in a while, a summer read can be life-changing.


Are there any more natural companions than summer vacation and summer reading? Summer vacation is about breaking away from the routine, ignoring the clock, letting a breeze or a wave, a trail or a highway take you somewhere unexpected. Summer reading works the same way.

Instead of a work-year’s consumption of articles, books, PDFs, and 7,000 other types of must-read, must-improve, must-survive documents consumed during the work year, summer reading is about willingly giving yourself over to an author to guide you into an unexpected world.

People read for pleasure year-round, but for most of us slow immersion in a book is possible only when we are free from other obligations. Slow immersion is what summer vacation and summer reading are all about.

In a Monitor cover story, Harry Bruinius and Carmen Sisson look at the enduring appeal of literature from the American South, a region that, like its style, reveals itself neither easily nor painlessly. You can’t skim William Faulkner or just enjoy the plot and not wrestle with the context or symbolism of a Toni Morrison novel. You have to give yourself over to these writers, allow their ideas to ripen day by day as you read and think.

In a literary sense, the American South is like the Russia of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the Colombia of Gabriel García Márquez, the Egypt of Naguib Mahfouz, and the India of dozens of astounding writers, ranging from Salman Rushdie to R.K. Narayan – a place of memory, loss, survival, and, for all that, hope.

The devastating violence in Charleston, S.C., on June 17 and the demonstration of forgiveness that followed were emblematic of the troubled history, knotted emotions, and redeeming grace of the South that so many writers have drawn on.

No work of literature – and the bar is very high in a world of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Cormac McCarthy, and many more – captures the soul of the South as Harper Lee’s masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (which is why there is so much anticipation surrounding her new title, “Go Set a Watchman”).

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” during summer vacation in the mid-1960s and remember how it unfolded over the hot, still, languid days with the lightness, warmth, and humor of the South I grew up in. But then more unfolded – oddities, injustices, and racial divides – that white Southerners might only have sensed but black Southerners knew as cruel reality. “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me and countless others about prejudice but also about decency and moral courage. I saw my world differently at the end of that book and the end of that summer.

A summer read isn’t required reading. It is necessary reading. As Atticus told Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

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