The books of summer

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Todd R. Nelson of Penobscot is a writer and former English teacher.

When I was a kid, every summer had a book. The summer I turned 12 was the summer of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Sixth grade was over; seventh grade loomed. Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo Radley are still inextricably bound in memory with our plaid sofa, popsicles, bare feet, and lazy hours in the world of the book. The film version was wonderful — from it I retain an affection for cigar boxes as treasure troves — however, it is the cadence and color of the words on the page that more persistently color my imagination.

Every summer had such a blockbuster book. I remember the summers of JRR Tolkein, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, George Orwell. Lest my reading habits seem too high falutin’, I admit to interludes of Mickey Spillane and Dick Francis. A good sentence is a good sentence. I’m not a snob. And yes, my reading tended towards a few banned books, I suppose.

Once my own children started doing summer reading, “Blueberries for Sal” and “Charlotte’s Web” topped our blockbuster list. It helped to pick our own blueberries in McCloskey country, storing up food for the winter like Little Sal and Little Bear; collecting new thoughts, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk,” like Sal’s blueberries hitting the bottom of her tin pail.

As a teacher, I champion the notion that summer reading is required reading, though choice and free-range is also a requirement. It’s akin to stocking up intellectual food for the winter, grazing, not simply knocking off a book for school requirements. It is stocking mental pantries with new, big ideas and fresh imagery and expression that we have acquired by practicing word-based imagining. When we read, our imaginative lives intersect with great minds of any culture and any age, if we have the authentic language of the writer. Words are the original dream works.

The electronic media that preoccupies too much of our attention requires more of our visual literacy than our verbal literacy. These omnipresent messages of our era ask us to conform to someone else’s vision of time and place. Reading asks us to participate in the creation of character, place and plot. We risk lapsing into passive acceptance of any point of view presented in a slick, tricky, colorful, fast-paced (often, physically or emotionally) visual medium. And we risk losing access to independent thought. “The poet is the priest of the invisible,” says Wallace Stevens. Words connect us to the unseeable, unhearable, untouchable; the world of our own interiors. We find out what we think and who we are by grappling with words.

The popular media emblems of Summer 2022 will be the customary blockbuster montages of quick-splice supersonic planes, explosions, and heroic buffoons, but the words you’ll hear usually lack resonance or great truths. Will we fly into the risky danger zone of reading challenging, thought-provoking, tense prose; take the challenge to engage with our imagination, thanks to words on the page.

Therefore, I submit this blockbuster notion: Stock up at the local book store and read a book. Though the latest avatar of the concept of “book” may be a Kindle or iPad or podcast, we are still living out the apotheosis of the Gutenberg revolution, now going on its next 500-year stint. After all, as Edward Abbey said: “One word is worth a thousand pictures. If it’s the right word.” What will this summer’s book be and how many thousands of pictures will it inspire?