I don’t know why I thought of this last night, but I was meditating out by the fire in the labyrinth, and for some reason Summer Reading Clubs came to mind.
You might think that my childhood bedroom was plastered with Summer Reading Club certificates, but you would be wrong. I rarely earned one.
That is not to say, of course, that I didn’t read in the summer. Au contraire, I read voraciously, hitting the Carnegie Public Library on the Court Square regularly all summer. We would even walk or ride our bikes to downtown to get new books.
I read all the time, devouring science fiction series and nonfiction books about science and theatre. Lots of art books, tons of “how-to” project books. I even haunted the reference section which had art history books with actual tipped-in illustrations, and even at a young age I was put out that someone (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Wood) had cut out the Rubens nudes with scissors. Seriously—just rip the entire tipped-in reproduction out if that’s your inclination; why go in and cut around the naked ladies? (It occurs to me that it might not have been censorship, but porno-vandalism. Simpler times.1)
So what was the problem? I dutifully got my little Reading Club flyer at the beginning of each summer, and I dutifully noted which books I had read, often filling up the form.
But I didn’t read the right kinds of books.
That’s right, my sweetlings, our Summer Reading Clubs were severely prescriptive in what you were “encouraged” to read. You had to do so many nonfiction books, and so many fiction, and of those you had to read certain kinds, and if you didn’t, you didn’t earn the certificate.
As I sat by the fire last night, I just marveled and chortled at how stupid that was—but that’s the way education used to be (AND LARGELY STILL IS) through and through: the Way It Spozed to Be, as it were. (The linked title was published in 1969. Nothing much has changed. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE??)
Why not provide alternative forms or checklists for different kinds of readers? Given that boys gravitate towards nonfiction, why not tilt their requirements in that direction? Why not let girls read nothing but Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley High? Why not just say, “Hey, kid, read 25 books in these eight weeks, and you’re golden!”?
But no: a well-read young person reads broadly, not necessarily deeply. Boys like nonfiction? Girls like romances? That is a deficiency which we must correct through our Summer Reading Program. The whole thing was prescriptive: Thou shalt… and Thou shalt not…, with no thought to the inner life of the reader.
Ludicrous bullshit, of course, and I would like to think that summer reading programs are a little better set up here in the 21st century. However, I don’t want to go find out. I’m going to pretend that fifty years later, we’re doing it right.
1 Actually, not simpler at all. If you wanted to gaze upon naked ladies, you had to jump through some serious hoops and cover some serious tracks. Titian and Rubens might be your best bet to see a booby, and who am I to judge those who managed to excise their very own Sleeping Angelica for their prurient delights? And God help you if you preferred naked men instead. These modern times are much simpler, and better, and so say we all.