A few years ago, in the Boston Globe, Craig Fehrman wrote an amusing piece about the origins of the summer reading list in the late 19th century. He connected it to the rise of the American vacation. A growing middle class meant the advent of leisure time, and these developments coincided with the desire of working Americans to escape the increasingly routinized nature of their jobs.
The emphasis at that time was on light reading, on diversionary texts that would relieve the harried mind. Mr. Fehrman quotes from an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1872 that recommended summer books which “the idler can take with him into solitude, and read with delightful pauses, when with indolent finger upon the page, his eye wanders up some green vista, or catches some view of the distant sea, and his ear is soothed with the distant murmur of the winds and waves.” In other words, if you’re too distracted to read, bring along a book that will not make you feel guilty if you never finish it. […]
And what did it matter if you never finished any of these books, if a lot of people picked up Tolstoy’s classic summer after summer and never got through the peace part to the war part? The idea of perfecting your inner life by reading the right books over the summer was as much a chimera as the idea of the perfect summer.
Still, looking forward to that spell of leisure and self-edification got you through the winter, and it consoled you with the illusion of a replenishing pause, outside the frame of mortal space and time. The Summer Book will always be with me. Even now, as my indolent finger falls upon a page of Gibbon’s masterwork on the Roman empire (summers of 1975-76, 1978-80, 2014-15, status: pending), winter’s workaday grind and piles of snow seem far, far away.
~ Lee Siegel, The End of the Ambitious Summer Reading List. For generations, Americans used the golden months to catch up on great old books and modern must reads. What happened to that semi-sacred reading space?