Summer Reading (by Mark Harrison)

By this week or next, nearly all public schools will have reopened, bringing an end to summer vacation for kids and with it the end to summer reading—both assigned and voluntary. For fifteen years, writer Mark Harrison’s day job has been in education—for the past ten years as a special education teacher. There may still be time for some kids to squeeze in a little summer reading, and this post contains interesting ideas for it based on Mark’s own experience. For adults in search of a late-summer read there’s Mark’s own debut story, “Dogs in the Canyon,” which appears in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (September/October 2022). Don’t miss it! —Janet Hutchings

The Killer Angels held such promise.

After having spent the previous summer with Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote, I had finally been assigned something of interest, a novel that was more Fletch than Pride and Prejudice. The mystery, I assumed, was set in Florida, at a private country club that housed a senior golf league known as the Angels. A private investigator would be hired by the club to investigate which of the Angels was murdering its other members, just like Matthew Scudder in A Long Line of Dead Men.

The Killer Angels was no mystery, though. It was a historical novel written by Michael Shaara, set during the Civil War, focusing on the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Mr. Green said it would be a good read, but it wasn’t, at least not for me.

I wanted more Lee Child, not more General Lee. 

Schools don’t really do mysteries, though, not even during the summer. You won’t find much Chandler or Connelly or Parker in the English Department’s book closet, though I once saw a copy of Early Autumn tucked between O’Brien and Poe.

“Too much plot,” a teacher once told me. “Not enough meat on the bone.” 

Better to assign a 518-page novel about the history of philosophy (Sophie’s World), which is what happened to me. 

“A Novel About the History of Philosophy.” That was the book’s subtitle.

The story itself was fine. I learned a lot about Kierkegaard and Descartes, Spinoza and Hume—more so than I probably wanted to—and I understood its purpose as a foundational text, especially when paired with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   

But I didn’t enjoy it.  

I always figured that if I had the opportunity to assign summer reading I would say, “Just read whatever you want.” I wasn’t being lazy or glib and didn’t mean to come across as disinterested or indifferent. I believed in summer reading, but it wasn’t important to me if the student read Stargirl, The Chocolate War, or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Better, I thought, to give students a choice and let them select whatever book they wanted, of any length, from any genre. If it were short, there was a chance that the student might read another book, especially if they enjoyed the first. A shorter book might serve as a gateway to something else by that author or to someone else whose stories were similar. 

That’s how it works. 

All I wanted was for my students to read and to eventually enjoy reading.

That, to me, was the point of summer reading, especially for students who struggle to read. I couldn’t imagine forcing one of my students, at sixteen, to struggle through 1984 after reading, in succession, Lord of the Flies, The Odyssey, and Brave New World. It seemed cruel. I had no problem if a student wanted to read a graphic novel, a romance novel, or a science fiction novel. If she grew up on Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew, perhaps she would have discovered Lois Duncan and read Ransom or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

As a teacher, it didn’t make sense to assign a novel that wouldn’t be read. I knew that there was no way my students were spending their free time reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Of Mice and Men.

Not happening.

But when it came to assigning summer reading I turned out to be no different than anyone else. I didn’t say “read anything.” Instead, I selected a specific book, recommending High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. 

Everyone likes music, right? 

Well, thirty students claimed to have read High Fidelity when they returned to school in September but the actual number was closer to two. 

Thank you, Sarah, and thank you, Matthew. It would have been a long and painful class discussion without you, though the fault was entirely my own. Perhaps I overestimated the interest a sixteen-year-old would have in a thirty-five-year-old’s top five breakups, lead-off album tracks, and novels, The Big Sleep chief among them.   

I haven’t bothered making any recommendations for summer reading since High Fidelity, but with the end of summer approaching, I’m often reminded of Hornby’s debut. I even went to our school library just the other day to see if we had it. We did, though I almost missed it, its cover different, the novel buried on the bottom row. Finding the book was a comfort in part, affirming its place as a potential high school text, but I felt embarrassed flipping through its pages, half-wishing there was a more sanitized version. 

There isn’t, at least not to my knowledge, but in skimming through the text, I wondered what Rob Fleming, the book’s protagonist, might recommend if it were August 15th and he was looking for one last book to read. What would he have offered as a Top 5 if he were going on vacation and could only list crime novels and mysteries? The Friends of Eddie Coyle (George V. Higgins), The Bat (Jo Nesbo), Small Crimes (Dave Zeltserman), The Goodbye Look (Ross MacDonald), and Defending Jacob (William Landay)?

I’m only kidding about Defending Jacob, which, for the last eight years, has been a running joke in our house, my wife recommending it whenever I finish a book and am in search of something new to read. Maybe an early Peter Swanson novel would be more fitting, something like The Kind Worth Killing

I just finished reading Swanson’s Nine Lives, which was good, inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

I’ll probably give his novel Before She Knew Him another read when I’m on the beach this month. With any luck, I won’t see any children racing to complete their assigned reading. I’d prefer to see them reading whatever they want to read, even a magazine. 

I suppose that if they have to read something like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they can always watch the video.

George did.

And I’m pretty sure that’s what Matthew and Sarah did.

There’s no character named Jack Black, kids.

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