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Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer Reading

Students at Occidental College’s 2008 Multicultural Summer Institute read Tomas Rivera’s “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” while enjoying a day in the sand. / Sonia Castaneda

Nat King Cole may have been singing about soda, pretzels and beer instead of summer reading in his 1963 pop hit, “Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer.” But, like the connection between good times and sunny vacation days, summer reading lists are eternal.

College students take their reading seriously and crave more knowledge. They are eager to explore new worlds, literally and figuratively. Reading is the key to these new intellectual landscapes.

Still, students may feel overwhelmed when faced with choosing summer reading. A New York Times article published this year reports that a new book of fiction is published in the United States every 30 minutes for a total of 10,000 books a year.

So many books, such little time! How is a college student to choose the measly number of books it will be possible to devour before fall? Where can students turn for recommendations?

Many students don’t need help in planning their summer reading. They are content to work their way through Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, give Ayn Rand a second look, read War and Peace for the third time or tackle Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in the original French. Others take the opportunity of summer break to delve into topics that were superficially covered during the academic year. A survey course of African American literature might lead to a summer of Toni Morrison.  Or professors might suggest specific books. Alternatively, some choose to begin reading required texts for an upcoming class.

Other college students may have their summer reading chosen for them and announced in a reading list for the entire class.  For example, at Occidental College in Eagle Rock the incoming frosh class is required to read a single book. Events and assignments throughout the year relate to the book, uniting the class by providing a common topic of study. Last year, students read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of stories about the Indian-immigrant experience in America. This year, students will read Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik. Occidental chose the book for its exploration into the lives of two men who profoundly influenced historical and current political and scientific landscapes.  The book also aligns with the school’s belief in the power of writing and argument to effect change in the larger world, which Darwin and Lincoln accomplished quite well.

UC Berkeley has a particularly unique approach and past reading lists have surprised students with requirements like the Old Testament, the Communist Manifesto and Winnie the Pooh.  Each year, the suggested reading list has a theme.  This year’s list highlights “Best Books About Science.”  The reading list website explains that whenever someone at Berkeley names a “best book” there are “all kinds of interesting and unexpected answers.”

There are intriguing variations to the college summer reading requirements. Occidental sometimes assigned a compilation of essays. One year, the 140-page compilation included Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail, an essay about the Vietnam War Memorial and an article about 1960’s women’s issues. Eric Newhall, Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, explained that a few of the articles focused on traditional subjects of economics and science while others stressed social change and justice.

What about choosing summer reading when there is no convenient college requirement? Chain bookstores offer their recommendations, attractively displayed in the stores’ summer reading area. Some students may be skeptical of recommendations from impersonal mega-chains.  A young bearded man with a bulging backpack was recently overheard grumbling about these big-store suggestions.  He said, “I don’t know either Barnes or Noble.  Why should I trust their recommendations?”

Independent bookstores are an appealing alternative, known for their personal approach to book recommendations as well as eclectic selections, staff knowledge and cultural vibrancy.

John Evans, owner of Diesel independent bookstores located in Oakland, Malibu and Brentwood, acknowledges the importance of bookstores in making reading recommendations but is more excited about the role of the independent bookstore in encouraging curiosity.

He is quick to disagree with the idea that students are unique and need specific recommendations and advice, noting there are as many differences as similarities within this population. According to Evans, college students are characterized by independent thinking, individuality and curiosity. For this reason, he feels his most meaningful recommendation is not a specific book, but the advice to “be curious and explore.” He encourages students to take curiosity “down its own path” as well as accepting recommendations from professors and librarians.

Evans explains that it’s important for students to be seen as individuals with freedom of choice rather than a mass group. “People tend to conform when they’re put into a group, but that’s not necessarily who they are,” he warns. “If you’re advocating for people’s minds, experiences and tastes the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think like other people.” Evans says, “In bookselling, nearly all stereotypes and groupings falls apart. The arrangement of interests, views, religions, experiences and attitudes is really wide.” Evans talks to his customers about their reading, studies and interests and makes recommendations based on his experience and expertise.

Evans recognizes that the number and variety of books is “infinite” and independent bookstores help make book choices more manageable by pre-selecting the best books to fill their shelves.

College students may love spending time at either the Diesel store in Malibu or its newer sibling at the Brentwood Country Mart.  If neither of these locations is quite close enough to the Southern California surf, a short trip down Pacific Coast Highway leads to “Small World Books” on the Venice Boardwalk. Tucked behind a popular beachfront eatery among drum circles and booths selling hemp clothes, one finds a serious, well-stocked booklovers haven.

The walls are crammed with books from floor to ceiling, in genres ranging from “Psychology and Social Science” to “Crafts and Collectibles” to “Horror and Suspense.”  Many of the store displays feature handwritten staff recommendations with an entire table dedicated to “summer reading.”

On a recent overcast late-July afternoon, Small World staffer Mary Beth Bolin offers personal recommendations to a college-age student craning her neck up at books in the store’s ethnic literature aisle. Bolin is describing Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henríquez, a book of short stories about the lives of young people in Panama. She notes that summer is the perfect time to read about foreign lands, either to enhance travel or as an alternative to a summer abroad program.

Bolin, a recent graduate of St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota, used her own summer vacations to indulge in reading.  With a grin she recalls reading tons about topics she had become highly interested in during the school year.  Summer reading also included books in subject areas and classes she considered pursuing. She would pick out the books that looked interesting, read them, and decide whether to enroll in the classes where those books were used.

Bolin adds that she never experienced a conflict between reading for fun and reading for study. “You study what you enjoy, and enjoy what you’re studying,” she says. “There turns out to not be such a big difference between fun and learning.”

Meanwhile, Nat King Cole croons his advice to “dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.”  One can’t help but think Cole left out “and read a good book” from his lyric.  What better way to enjoy those “lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer?”

Written for “Journalism 101” class at Santa Monica College, Summer 2009.

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