My family’s summer vacations in India, three decades ago, used to mean hill station sojourns accompanied with an ample book bag that held the family’s quota of vacation reading. Unlike the US and the UK, Indian newspapers rarely carried summer books specials. Our holiday reading was self-selected or else dictated by the contents of musty book-cupboards in hotels: creaky memoirs by former British officers, Raj-era cookbooks, the Indian author Ruskin Bond’s popular hill tales as well as Jim Corbett’s adventure stories that included man-eating tigers and leopards.
In recent years, the “summer reads” feature has become a staple of the publishing and media calendar, turning the wheels of commerce and providing readers with armloads of books to stuff into their beach bags. But the idea of leisure reading has a long and rich history. In Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading (2019) Donna Harrington-Lueker writes: “Name nearly any of today’s summer reading practices — indulging in escapist beach-blanket reading . . . vowing to tackle that weighty literary classic that has been on your bookshelf for years — and you can find these practices taking shape in the nineteenth century, as Americans flocked to railroad cars and steamboat lines to engage in the newfound practice of summer leisure.”
In the US, Britain, and elsewhere in the world, the concept and availability of leisure time changed over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as holidays went from being a strictly elite pursuit to a middle- and working-class necessity. During this time, circulating libraries sprang up across Britain, offering people a chance to borrow expensive novels and non-fiction books. As Lee Erickson notes in The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library: “People were quite willing to rent a novel they were unwilling to buy.”
From the start, summer reading had its critics. In 1766, the Reverend James Fordyce, whose Sermons To Young Women was lightly lampooned by Jane Austen in her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, appealed to women readers in the UK: “We consider the general run of Novels as utterly unfit for you. Instruction they convey none”. Just over a century later, the Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, author of The Abominations of Modern Society (1872), took a strong stand in his sermon, “Summer Temptations”, warning unwary Americans against the dangers of baneful literature: “I really believe there is more pestiferous trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in all the other ten months of the year.”
But they were fighting a losing battle. By 1897, there was enough of a buzz around vacation reads for The New York Times to launch its first Summer Reads special. The newspaper presented a carefully selected list of “about 200 books, of the kind suitable for the season” — chiefly fiction, but including history, biography, travel, outdoor books and poetry.
Among them were biographies of George Washington, by Woodrow Wilson and others, reminiscences of Old New York by Charles H Haswell, and of India by a Lt Col Pollock. There were travel books that took readers through “wild Norway” or “joyful Russia”, or big game hunting, but also the brisk Bicycling for Ladies by the “wheelwoman” Maria E Ward. Serious readers could head to the mountains armed with the latest novels by Thomas Hardy or Henry James; those of a more frivolous disposition might have opted for Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian romance, The Heart of Princess Osra.
Looking through Harrington-Lueker’s list of American summer bestsellers from 1867 to 1915, what stands out is how much our experience of leisure reading has in common with that time. “The period’s publishers,” she writes, “increasingly began to frame summer reading not as a disreputable indulgence but as a respite from the pressures and complexities of Victorian life.” That’s not so different from the subtext to present-day beach reads — light, breezy reading is presented as an essential escape from modern life’s anxieties.
Today, readers love to intersperse serious fiction and political or historical memoirs with bubblegum romances, and so did those early vacationers. They may have ploughed their way through the American writer Winston Churchill’s sprawling historical novel The Crisis (1910), but they also devoured the resort romances that Harrington-Lueker lists, from The Belle of Saratoga to Love in Idleness: A Tale of Bar Harbour.
This summer, I’ll be catching up on Isabella Hammad’s 2019 doorstopper The Parisian, about a young Palestinian named Midhat Kamal who exchanges first world war-era Montpellier for life in Nablus among rebellions and tragedy after the end of the Ottoman empire. But I will have more frivolous reading on hand, from Kirstin Chen’s Counterfeit, a smart take on complicated friendships and murky tales in the world of counterfeit handbags, to Amy Odell’s biography of Anna Wintour — not forgetting a stash of murder mysteries in case any of the hotels on my route lack a musty book cupboard.
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