Summer reading. If Catholic school kids are anything like I was eons ago, hearing these words precipitated a cold shudder. Reading? In the summer? I just spent the last nine months with my nose buried in the Civil War and Punnett squares, and I am still drying tears from the end of the novel “Where the Red Fern Grows.” No thank you, I’m going to spend these next three months burying myself in sand, eating Cheetos and ice cream, and playing kickball from dawn to dusk.
But a funny thing happened on the way to paying bills and graying hair: I started appreciating a good summertime book.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, dating back to the breakfast table as a middle schooler, with my eyes scanning the back of a Honey Nut Cheerios box or Jayson Stark’s daily Phillies column.
It wasn’t until sometime after my final college class, though, when I began to understand summer reading — the immersion into a piece of writing — not so much as something to endure, but something to enjoy. Like a good wine, or Hallmark Christmas movies.
The days of June, July and August for me, at least, have meant ample time at Long Beach Island. And beach time, whether for a weekend or a whole week, mean leisure time. And leisure time mean books, more than anything else (sorry, Aunt Rosa). Books for long days on the sand, by the bay, or on the housedeck.
Over these past few years, I’ve become borderline-obsessive with crafting my own planned summer reading. Starting back at the beginning of the year, I’ll think about what will go into my backpack for the shore. Varied fiction and non-fiction such as John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” Ron Chernow’s “Washington” and Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” And even pulpy detective tomes from Raymond Chandler or Harlan Coben.
Why the change in my summer reading thinking? Honestly, it could be the freedom to choose what to read, and not having to worry about a test or exam in September. But I think it’s because looking back, I now realize why I spent summers between classrooms with my nose in “Two Lives of Charlemagne,” “The Killer Angels,” “The Hobbit” or “The Things They Carried.”
These books, and others, not only taught me about history in the Middle Ages or Gettysburg, but about heroism, responsibility, good vs. evil, friendship and morality. I didn’t always agree with, but I understood the lives and choices of Holden Caulfield, Jay Gatsby or, dare I say, Pony Boy from The Outsiders.
Summer reading is still teaching me. During my last LBI vacation, I finished Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The adventurous tale of love, deception, vengeance, justice and mercy had me locked in, like Edmond Dantes in the Chateau d’if. And its final line provided some unexpected spiritual wisdom for this pilgrim reader: “wait and hope.”
And, alas, I’m ready for fall reading. A good time to re-read Wordsworth’s “September 1819,” where he realizes that spring and summer are “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Or maybe Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle In Time,” which begins on a dark and stormy October night.
Whatever book it is, no Cheetos will be used to stain the pages this time. Maybe Cheez-its.
Peter G. Sánchez is the Catholic Star Herald staff writer, social media coordinator and co-host of the Talking Catholic podcast.