When I was a kid, every summer had a book.
The summer I turned twelve was the summer of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Sixth grade was over; seventh grade loomed. Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo Radley remain inextricably bound in memory with our plaid sofa, popsicles, bare feet, and lazy hours in the world of a fictional Maycomb, Ala., childhood. The film version was wonderful — from it I retain an affection for cigar boxes as treasure troves. However, it is the cadence and color of the words on the page that more persistently color my imagination.
Which is to say that a series of summer books is an emblem of my childhood, and my idealized notion of what summer should be like.
Every summer had such a book. I remember the summers of classics like J.R.R.Tolkein, Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, George Orwell. Lest my reading habits seem too high falutin', I admit to interludes of Micky Spillane and Dick Francis, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein. Am I dating myself?
Once my own children started doing summer reading, "Blueberries for Sal" and "Charlotte's Web" topped our summer book classics list. We even picked blueberries in McCloskey country, storing up food for the winter like Little Sal and Little Bear; collecting new thoughts, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk,” like the rhythm of Sal’s blueberries hitting the bottom of her tin pail.
During my years as an English teacher, I championed the notion that summer reading is akin to storing up intellectual food for the winter, not merely knocking off a book for teacher, scribbling the obligatory book reports the night before school started up again.
A summer book is an exercise in stocking mental pantries with new, big ideas and fresh imagery that we have acquired by practicing word-based imagining. When we read, our imaginative lives intersect with great minds of any culture and myriad ages, if we have the authentic language of the great writer. Today, we tend to be more image-based in our imaginings, like Pixar and Disney’s truncated, drive-thru, theme-toy versions of legends and stories. They can't come close to the open-ended possibilities that language delivers. Words are the original dream works. Am I dating myself?
Since the ubiquitous digital media require more of our visual than our verbal literacy, we might consider a response. These omnipresent messages of our age ask us to conform to someone else’s vision of time and place. Reading asks us to participate in the creation of character, place, and, to some extent, plot. We risk lapsing into passive acceptance of any point of view presented in a slick, tricky, colorful, fast-paced (read: violent) visual medium. Are we risking the loss of our own access to independent thought?
“The poet is the priest of the invisible,” says Wallace Stevens. Words connect us to the unseeable, unhearable, untouchable — the world of our own interiors. We find out what we think and who we are by grappling with words. I’m not grousing about the delivery system — I do a fair amount of reading on my Kindle, after all, and live for email.
Now that I’m an adult, I wish I had someone assigning me summer reading. I wish that I had the enforced languor of a plaid sofa, therapeutic boredom, and a few popsicles, to actually finish just one of the books stacked at my bedside; just one whole day to languish and read. It’s what summer should be like.
The media emblems of summer 2012 will be the latest Hollywood high-octane action oeuvres of Avengers and spies and aliens. But the words delivered on screen probably won’t be remembered for any great truths as much as for an advance on the sardonic punch lines of the age.
Therefore, I submit this blockbuster notion: support a mission to save civilization from the planet-killer asteroid of wasted imaginations. Read a book. I’m not grumbling about the Avengers' millions in box office lucre. For me, a summer book rationale comes down to what Eric Sevareid said: “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.”
It’s a feeling I wish on every kid, the gateway to their interiors and to the great adventure of imagining life beyond the known universe.
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA.