August 8, 2014
When does summer begin for most kids?
It begins about two weeks before the bell rings on that last day of school. Whatever kids have planned for the summer, you can bet they’re already thinking of these plans well before they are officially granted their academic freedom.
But let’s tweak that question just a tiny bit:
When does summer reading begin?
Well, I think we all know that this is a particularly hard question to answer. I recall regarding summer reading as the ruiner of my summertime pleasures. There were my various summer jobs (camp counselor, mowing lawns, working at a sporting goods store), my various summer dates (no need to elaborate and really not all that exciting), and my various summer activities (the pool, pick-up basketball and the packed theaters of summer blockbusters). But when did that abhorrent reading begin?
I’d hazard about two weeks before the first week of school.
Sometimes, but not always, that really was a shame. There were some good books in there. I recall reading The Red Badge of Courage in the paradoxically calm shade of a big Cottonwood tree. There I was, reading about someone not much older than me who was fighting a war he felt to be senseless and sad, and I was basking in the comfort of a warm summer night while the protagonist marched back into war as a Standard Bearer for his regimen. This juxtaposition alone made reading the book that much more powerful.
But if you want to know what really made a difference, it was when I was assaulted by Percy Shelly’s Ozymandias. I was flummoxed and angered that my upcoming eleventh grade teacher would ask me to read something as obtuse and grand as Shelly’s famous poem. Then, and quite fortunately for me, my dad overheard me complaining about the assignment. I was home from weight training for football practice, not happy about the meager fortnight that separated me and the classroom, and was struggling to read the poem out loud.
“Look upon my works, ye mighty…” I stuttered.
My dad, loosening his tie as he came home from work, shouted out from his bedroom:
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone!”
“What?” I shouted back.
“Ozymandias,” my dad said, walking into the kitchen. “I love that poem. It’s one of the few I actually remember.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Ummm, no. Not really.”
Hearing my lack of affirmation for one of his favorite works of literature, my dad sat down at the table and he, too, read the poem out loud. Then we talked about it. We compared it to Nixon, whose Watergate scandal I had studied the year before (and, who, incidentally, resigned from office 40 years ago today). We compared it to the lack of permanence that characterizes our spinning planet. We even compared it to the perceived hubris of the Dallas Cowboys. I now think of that poem as one of the most seminal works I have ever been told to read. Imagine my delight when Breaking Bad titled one of its most wrenching episodes Ozymandias nearly 30 years later! I understood the meaning of the title, all thanks to my dad.
My dad read it with me.
I know this sounds corny, but it was really awesome to know that my dad was taking pleasure in my summer reading. That’s why when my 14-year-old daughter was slogging away bravely at Lord of the Flies, I decided to revisit that book. I hadn’t picked it up since my senior year of high school, and I learned a few very important things:
We talked about morality. We discussed whether Piggy was weak or strong. We wondered whether Roger’s apparent sociopathy made Jack’s coup possible. And, we compared it to stories like The Hunger Games, to modern politics and even to moments in cheesy TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy.
So, as a parent, a child psychiatrist—and heck, a guy who loves books—I urge all of you: choose one of those summer reading books, and if you have the time, read it along with your child. I guarantee you’ll make an impression.
And your child won’t feel quite so bereft at the impending start of a bright new school year.