I’ve had a problem these past few weeks trying to figure out just what “Summer Reading” is supposed to mean. Then, the death of an author solved it. Not that I’m happy about an author dying, but the recent passing of Robert M. Persig made me think of the summer of 1985, when I was nineteen years old, and read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Looking back on that summer, and how that book became tangled up with everything else in my emotionally fraught teenage life, gave me a better understanding of our theme for the month of May at Foreword Reviews: “Summer Reading.”
Frankly, the phrase never made sense to me. I can read any book in the summer. If I took The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy to the beach, would that make the medical textbook “summer reading?” No idea. It’s one reason I’ve banned the phrase “a great beach read” from our book reviews. Summer reading is subjective, it’s in the moment, it changes as you grow. And it’s not only about the book. It’s part of an entire sensory experience that’s tied very much into memory. Sometimes, you don’t know you’re experiencing it until after long afterward.
Think of a summer book as more akin to a summer song. A summer song is always there, in the background, playing on the radio, danced to and sung along with by you and your friends, as you experience something magical in your life: a romance, a road trip with friends, a summer at camp. It doesn’t matter if the song is any good, or if you look back on it twenty years later and feel ashamed for ever liking that silly tune. It’s about the memory.
When you’re young, summer is a time of reinvention. You go away to camp, or on vacation to be where nobody knows you, and for a time be a new person. You are naturally open to new experiences, along with new thoughts and ideas. For those who enjoy reading, the books you bring to the beach, to the park, to the pool, to your best friend’s house, are the mental and emotional soundtrack to your changing life.
That’s why when I heard of the death of Robert M. Persig, a couple of weeks ago, I immediately thought of the summer of ’85 … and Sally. We were both camp counselors at Interlochen Arts Camp here in Northern Michigan. I brought along Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to read in my down time. But then Sally “happened” and for a couple of glorious months, my free time was not spent reading.
Then, tragically, Sally’s mother died and she had to go back home, leaving me alone for the month of August. In my grief over Sally’s departure, I buried myself into Zen. No, don’t worry, I will not bore you with the details of my letters to Sally and my hackneyed attempts to relate Persig’s contemplation of the substance of Truth and “Quality” with our summer love affair. But let’s just say that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance forever became entwined with feelings of love and loss as only a nineteen-year-old boy can experience them. Zen was my summer jam of ’85.
And, so, that is how I define a summer book. At another time in my life, younger, it might have been all the classic sci-fi I read, all night in fits of insomnia, in the cool of my parents’ basement one hot summer. Your own results may vary.
This is all a long-winded way of introducing our Summer Reading series for the month of May at Foreword Reviews. We’ll have other points of view on what we mean, from library lists to recommended reading for politicians (assuming they do read).
So, enjoy. No matter what book you carry to the beach or in your heart, may all your summers be literary ones.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy