Everything’s a mess, but you know what? It’s still summer, and that means it’s summer reading time. What are you reading, and where are you reading it? Thrillers in the yard? Romance novels in a hammock installed in your living room? Celebrity biographies from the ’70s in your bathtub?
The tradition of summer reading in America goes back to the 19th century, when summer vacations began to become accessible to more than just the ultra-wealthy. The Boston Globe reports that specially selected books were a staple of these trips from the very beginning:
But what did vacationers do in those gardens, or around that pool, or after a vigorous game of lawn bowling? From the very beginning, they read. In a list of travel tips in 1874, the Globe saved its best tip for last: “Don’t forget to take some books with you.” It’s not clear how anyone could forget, given how actively advertisers promoted books as a vacation staple. In one giant summer spread, next to its picnic baskets, yacht chairs, bathing caps, and croquet sets, Macy’s promised to have “all the light literature of the day for SUMMER READING.” The department store even offered to ship the latest titles directly to your resort, just as soon as they came in stock.
But while summer reading has been tied up with leisure, which has always tied up with money, books also offer a pretty cheap escape even if resorts aren’t in the cards, whether that’s due to financial considerations or public health reasons. That’s the message of this WPA poster from the late 1930s, during the Great Depression.
Of course, many libraries are currently closed; if only we could move some selections outdoors, like in this open-air street library photographed in Hong Kong in 1955, where patrons could stand and read on the spot.
Someday, though, it will be nice to return to the crowded confines of a public pool or packed-full park, where the concern isn’t life and death but just generally a desire for personal space to spread out and read.
Maybe even sitting with a friend? Someday!