It’s summer again, and I find myself reaching for something light-hearted to read during these hot months where the rhythm of life slows down for a moment. As this particular summer's beginning, my oldest child has just finished up her AP Literature course, which required reading exhaustively all year. This reminded me of my own AP English class (as it was called then).
After signing up for the class at the close of junior year, a letter was sent to my home detailing that a requirement for the course was to read two books over the summer from the attached list and report on them on the first day of school. Summer reading? Back then, assigned reading was like a punishment.
As I reflected further about that summer reading experience, I couldn’t help but wonder what was it all for? Another assignment hoop to jump through in my high school journey, or something more? Take a look back with me at the summer of ‘89 (or more accurately, of 1856 and 1951).
I’m 17 years old, about to embark on my senior year in high school and assigned to read about an unhappily married middle-aged Emma Bovary in France. This novel by Gustave Flaubert seemed very unrelatable to me as I picked it up from my local Waldenbooks (RIP) that summer. What did I know of passionate love or disappointment in how a life turned out? But I mentioned it was set in France, right?
While many books are left for fame after their author’s demise, if at all, this book was steeped in controversy as soon as it was released. The book was considered obscene and Flaubert was sued in a very public trial. Adding to the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the book became famous in its own time.
But the book has had staying power despite it being Flaubert’s first novel, or the fact that he was a middle-aged white male writing about the frustrations of a woman stuck in her provincial life and struggling to play the roles for which she had willingly signed up (wife and mother) while striving to quench her own desires. The stamina of the book lies in the posing of its universally relatable human questions, which include “Who am I?” and “What do I want out of this life?” The reader must decide whether the novel is a cautionary tale or simply the story of an assertive woman who went after what she thought she wanted— and was judged differently than her male counterparts for doing so.
Upon revisiting this classic, I have realized that while I may not have fully appreciated it at the time, this book has lingered in my subconscious since the summer I read it. I compare the experience of reading it to my English teacher packing me food (for thought) for a long journey. The themes of the book may not have seemed relevant in high school, but the ideas of a woman’s dependence on a man, a woman’s agency in her own sexuality, and the ultimate value of a life were all percolating in the back of my mind as I have made my way in the world.
I have never felt the need to re-read Madame Bovary because I can’t imagine it resonating with me more than it does already. (Did I mention I named my aforementioned oldest child Emma?)
This book by J.D. Salinger has been hailed as an American literary classic. And it seemed like a no-brainer read to my teenage self, since it was slightly more relatable with a moody teenager, Holden Caulfield, as its main character. He is sixteen, dealing with siblings, wrestling with emotions. It was a coming-of-age storyline before that was the rage. It was a glimpse of post-WWII PTSD and a commentary on the superficial.
Did I want to be cool and in on the references to this novel that was so often hauled around in the back pockets of Jordache jeans like a badge of honor? Of course. But soon, the relatability waned.
Unlike Emma Bovary, I never thought about Holden after reading this book. Truth be told, I had to look up the plot before writing this article. Reviewing the novel’s plot points reminded me that I had felt like this teenager was just a jerk. What was all the fuss about? Holden was failing his classes and getting kicked out of prep school. He forfeited a fencing match because he left his equipment on the subway. He started fights to get a reaction. This character, who was white, male and privileged, was blowing it. I thought a coming-of-age novel meant that the protagonist grew or learned something in the novel’s journey, but in my estimation, Holden never did.
My verdict on revisiting this former summer read—does it mean something more to me looking back in hindsight? No. It never resonated with me, but I don’t begrudge others for liking it. I just balk at the notion of accepting literature as great because we are told it is great. To me, a work is great when it leaves you with an impression or souvenir, the French word for memory.
Related: To Re-Read or Not to Re-Read?
To answer my own question about whether the summer reading experience was just a way to satisfy a requirement of a course or something more, I would have to say something more. I’m a little biased as a bonafide bookworm, but I will say that the time I spent with my assigned books during the summer of 1989 was worth it—I would not have read them on my own.
I am also happy to report that summer reading lists still exist at my alma mater and are inclusive of more diverse writers and characters/situations than my 1989 list, with many contemporary choices thrown in. Ultimately, I look back at the summer of 1989 like many others look back at summer relationships; Holden was a fling that I vaguely remember and Emma became a fast friend, the one that you might not talk to for years but with whom you can pick up right where you left off.
Featured photo: Thought Catalog / Unsplash