Please welcome today’s guest writer, Bekah Waalkes. Bekah graduated from Calvin in 2016 with a major in literature and minors in gender studies, writing, and history. She’s loitering around Grand Rapids for the summer before leaving for Budapest, where she will teach English and attempt to pronounce Hungarian for a year.
When I was a child, summers were for reading: my siblings and I spent lazy mornings sprawled on a cool couch with our books, afternoons sitting in the sun with the same books, evenings finishing them, and late nights starting new ones. Slight variations occurred for road trips (slower reading due to carsickness), beach vacations (weird sunburns from falling asleep while reading), or camps (reading confined to night time—what horror!).
What made summer reading different from the reading we did all year was the expansiveness of it. The answer to our whines about boredom was usually “Read a book!” And we did, because we had learned that to pick up a book in the face of an empty day was to immerse ourselves in a new world with new people, and to come out the other side of it a little different. To be strangers with a character in the morning and close friends by nightfall—that was the magic of summer reading.
Since high school and college, I’ve all but stopped reading in the summer. All my summers since freshman year have been spent working at camps, where I hiked, swam, and held s’more-sticky hands from dawn to stunningly beautiful sunset but had little time for leisure reading.
But this summer was going to be different. I had an office job with regular hours, and I planned to read, well, everything. I pictured myself coming home from work and cracking open some long and important books I had never read in class, churning through pages, late into the night. Anna Karenina, A Fine Balance, Ulysses, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Les Misérables, the list went on and on—some kind of guilty English major’s penance, perhaps. But first up was The Bell Jar.
At first it seemed to be the perfect post-graduation read. Four important and formative years of your life completed? Friends starting to move away? Living alone for a week in half a duplex? Haven’t started work yet? Moving out of the nation in a few short months? Your family just departed after a terrific weekend? No better way to fill the blazingly empty days in front of you than some Sylvia Plath!
I wanted to pick it up for the same reason I’m starting to muddle through Middlemarch—it felt commemorative and appropriate—but then a good friend offered some advice: “I’m just not sure you’ve got the emotional wherewithal for The Bell Jar yet. Maybe not this summer.”
As much as I despise the idea of not being able to “handle” a book, my friend was right. I probably don’t have the emotional wherewithal for The Bell Jar yet; add it to the list of things I’m not quite ready for, under the ABBA song “Slipping Through My Fingers” and the Taco Bell on Leonard St.—especially not by myself. For all the trappings of community it might offer, summer reading is a solo activity, at least for me. It is expansive and exciting and even magical, but at the end of it all, it is about me reading, eyes to page.
So “not this summer” has become my new summer reading mantra; it is, after all, only my first summer of post-graduate reading. I’m now operating without the guidance of list or syllabi. To novels about depressed young women in New York I can say resoundingly, not this summer. Long Russian novels? Not this summer. That lit theory book I never finished? Not this summer. These books are important, and I hope to read them someday. But not this summer.
Instead, I’ve been reading slowly, and I’ve been re-reading books I love. My twelve-year-old self would scoff (less than a book a day! pathetic!), but my unambitious pace has been a sort of a balm. I’m reading slowly and luxuriously, spending time with characters and worlds and sentences that I like. For the first time since my heyday of summer reading, I’m a little less worried about the prestige or final number of books I’ll have finished by August and more about the kind of literary company I’ll be keeping. Not this summer, Sylvia. Maybe next year.