From The New York Times:
When the days get longer and the mercury begins to rise, the books appear. Sunscreen-dappled paperbacks are tucked into beach bags and backpacks, sprinkled across picnic tables and dropped into the crooks of hammocks. Like their siblings the summer blockbuster and the song of the summer, they come: The season of summer reading has arrived.
Something about these dog days, more than any other time of year, invites readers to bury themselves in a book — and not just any book, but one that is lighter, more fun and more transporting than their usual fare. “Why summer reading? One doesn’t have winter reading, or fall reading (that I suppose would have too autumnal an echo) or even … spring reading,” the critic Clive Barnes wondered in The New York Times Book Review in 1968. “But summer reading — like the Statue of Liberty and motherhood — is always with us.”
This has been true since the earliest days of the Book Review, which published its first special issue featuring “books suitable for summer reading” on June 5, 1897, and has continued to put out an annual guide almost every year since. The recommendations in that first issue ran the gamut from memoirs, history and biography, to poetry and essays, to books on “Travel and Adventure” or “Gardens, Flowers and Birds.” There were offerings from “A Group of Female Novelists,” “Fiction by Famous Hands” and “Novels by Some Newer Men,” as well as “Noteworthy Long Stories” and “Books on Many Themes.” And, just for good measure, the editors also threw in the 50 best books of 1896.
What seems commonplace now was then a fairly new phenomenon. The idea of reading different kinds of literature at different times of year dates back centuries — for an early example, see William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” — but summer reading as we now know it emerged in the United States in the mid-1800s, buoyed by an emerging middle class, innovations in book publishing and a growing population of avid readers, many of them women. And this rise of summer reading coincided with the birth of another cultural tradition: the summer vacation.
“The novel appointed to be read on the piazzas of mountain and seaside hotels and on the shade side of farmhouses that take ‘city boarders’ is the direct product of the Summer habits of the American people,” the Book Review reported in 1900. “Half a century ago going to the country or changing the family abode during the torrid months was hardly thought of except by the rich and fashionable folk.”
Growing numbers of middle-class Americans flocked to resorts and grand hotels that popped up across the United States, connected to urban centers by an expanding network of train lines. “Any place the railroad went, chances were that there was going to be a summer resort at the end of whatever railroad line was there,” Donna Harrington-Lueker, a professor of English at Salve Regina University and the author of “Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading,” said in a phone interview.
But in the mid-1800s, things started to shift. What had been a privilege reserved for the wealthy became a possibility for a growing group of upper-middle-class and middle-class Americans. While they didn’t have palatial summer estates or the funds for a monthslong European tour, they could afford to take a brief respite from paid work. And they were eager to exercise this ability as a marker of their rising social standing.
Publishers saw an opportunity in this new wave of summer travel to bolster what had traditionally been a lackluster season for book sales, and to promote novels, which up until that point had largely been seen as an inferior literary subgenre and a dangerous corrupting influence, particularly for young women.
“Reading novels was something that was highly suspect,” said Dr. Harrington-Lueker. “But slowly, from the 1870s into the 1880s and ’90s, they manage to reposition it as a genteel, middle-class pleasure. Light novels, paperback novels, novels that were easily portable or could be read while lying under a tree: All of these became embraced by the tastemakers of the industry.”
The publishers’ goals were helped along by two other important developments, Wendy Griswold, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, explained in a phone interview. The invention in the mid-1800s of wood pulp paper, which was much cheaper to produce than paper made from linen rags, significantly reduced the price of books. And literacy rates among American women — who were more likely to spend long chunks of the summer at resorts than their husbands, who often had to commute back and forth from their city jobs — skyrocketed.
Link to the rest at The New York Times