Our Book Nerd is still recovering from vacation, so we’re revisiting her thoughts on the long, lovely stretches of reading time that defined her childhood summers. Stay tuned for an extra-extra long Library Chicken update!
These days I read in bits and pieces. I take a book with me everywhere I go, so I can grab 15 minutes while I’m waiting in the dentist, or 10 minutes waiting in the car for the kids to finish class. (I’d read at stoplights if I could.) Our family readaloud time can also get fragmented. We have a strict policy of reading together every night—except when dinner plans didn’t go as planned and we eat an hour later than normal, or someone isn’t feeling well, or we had a rough day homeschooling and my readaloud voice is shot, or whatever. On those nights we might cut our reading time in half, or forgo it altogether in favor of a group viewing of the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance.
It sometimes feels like my reading progress can be measured in paragraphs instead of pages, so this time of year, I think back with longing to my childhood summers, when I could read uninterrupted for hours at a stretch. I’d pick the thickest books I could find, or check out every book in a series and stack them up beside me, devouring them like potato chips. With few distractions, I could get absorbed in a book in a way that’s much more difficult for me today. I can remember exactly where I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, heart pounding, as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet blew my mind. Another time I was reading science fiction in the hammock on the porch at home and suddenly looked up, startled and alarmed at the idea that I was outside breathing open air—until I remembered that I was on planet Earth and the air was okay to breathe.
A while ago, I was talking with a friend I’ve known since third grade (we bonded over The Chronicles of Narnia) and I said that while I was enjoying reading The Lord of the Rings with my kids, it was a much different experience from reading it on my own, on the long summer days, when I didn’t do much of anything but hang out in Middle Earth and worry about Ringwraiths. “I wish I’d been able to do that,” my friend said wistfully. I didn’t understand what she meant. I knew she was at least as big a Tolkien-nerd as I was, and we’d read the books about the same time.
“Don’t you remember?” she said. “My parents thought I read too much, so after half an hour I had to go play outside.” (My friend was much too well-behaved to do the logical thing and sneak the book out with her.) Clearly, if I had ever known about such traumatic events, I had blocked them from my memory. Of course, now that she is a grown-up with a full-time job and a household to support, it’s very nearly impossible for my friend to go back and recreate the summers she should have had, visiting other worlds and inhabiting other lives.
I’ve used her sad story as a cautionary tale in my own life. Whether we take a summer break or homeschool year-round (we’ve done both), I try to take advantage of the unique flexibility of homeschool life to make sure that my kids have the time and space to find their own reading obsessions. This year my younger son is tracking down The 39 Clues as quickly as the library can fulfill his hold requests, my 11-year-old daughter is matriculating at Hogwarts for the umpteenth time, my teenage daughter is spending a lot of time in various apocalyptic wastelands, and my teenage son is hanging out in small-town Maine with terrifying clowns. I can’t always join them (no way am I voluntarily reading about scary clowns), but I do try to schedule some marathon readaloud sessions, so that we can finally finish the His Dark Materials trilogy or get started with our first Jane Austen.
Occasionally (oh, happy day!) the kids will even ask me for reading suggestions, so I can pull out some recent favorites from the children’s/YA shelf. At the moment that list includes Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner, about a fantasy world where parental overprotectiveness has been taken to such extremes that children are literally chained to their guardians. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is an alternate-history steampunk retelling of World War I, where the heroine disguises herself as a boy to serve on one of the massive, genetically modified, living airships in the British air force. Garth Nix’s Mister Monday envisions all of creation being run by a vast, supernatural bureaucracy, which our 12-year-old hero must learn to navigate to save his own life and ultimately the world (encountering quite a bit more adventure and danger along the way than we usually find in, say, the average DMV office). Each of these books is the first in a series, fulfilling my requirements for appropriate summer reading.
And as much as possible, I try to carve out some time for myself to grab my own over-large summer book—maybe Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or Hilary Mantel’s latest Tudor epic, Bring Up the Bodies, or maybe I’ll finally tackle Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire—and snuggle next to the kids to do some side-by-side reading, ignoring deadlines and household chores to get lost in a book together.
This post is reprinted from the summer 2014 issue of HSL magazine.