A Brief History of Summer Reading

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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.”

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.

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.

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.

Summer resorts provided women with an escape from the strictures of everyday Victorian life, free from the prying eyes of husbands or chaperones. And they also provided the setting for a new genre of novel, one specifically crafted about and for this season of escape.

The American summer novel, which began popping up in the 1860s, was easily identifiable by a few key characteristics — many of which may sound familiar to today’s readers. It took place over the course of a summer, at a resort or grand hotel. Its plot was “devoted to lovers … their thrills, their perturbations, their mishaps, and their triumphs,” as the Book Review wrote in the introduction to its 1898 summer reading issue. And it ended with an engagement or marriage, as the characters prepared to return to society.

Such a novel was easy to spot without ever cracking its spine. It was set apart by its cover, usually made of paper and featuring a romantic summertime scene. “A catching title, the colors, and a photographic reproduction of a comely soubrette face are considered the correct adornment of the cover of a Summer novel,” the Book Review reported in 1900. “The public does the rest.”

These books didn’t just offer a vicarious adventure for those who longed to spend their summer caught up in a whirlwind seashore romance. They also acted as a kind of how-to guide for middle-class Americans who were traveling in the summers for the first time, and who were eager to prove they belonged in this vacationing echelon by mastering the etiquette of resort life.

The genre also provided an entry point for many female writers, who penned some of the most popular summer novels. Blanche Willis Howard’s “One Summer,” set on the coast of Maine, was such a smash hit when it came out in 1875, Dr. Harrington-Lueker said, that it was reprinted every year until at least 1900. And before writing “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott churned out numerous summer stories — all published anonymously or pseudonymously — such as “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” which follows a group of young beach vacationers who embark on a host of orgiastic escapades after deciding to spice up an idle summer afternoon by eating bonbons laced with hashish.

These works were enormously popular with the general reading public and regularly made their way onto the Book Review’s summer reading lists. But the recommendations often came loaded with feminine caveats — siloed off into their own categories and described by The Times as “light in character” (1901), “light reading” (1907) or “as light as thistledown” (1911).

Summer leisure evolved and expanded dramatically in the early 20th century, thanks in large part to the invention of the automobile and the introduction of paid vacation time. And summer reading became so established as an American pastime that it continued to grow even during periods when vacations were put on hold. “In curious and unexpected ways the war affects and alters many a thing,” The Times reported in 1915, one year into the first World War. “The latest of its byproducts is the appearance of manifold signs that there is to be a boom in summer reading. Not wholly in books about the war, either; in every kind of books.”

The introduction of the mass market paperback in the late 1930s further democratized things. “The novelty of paperbacks is not only their physical form, but also that they were sold in drugstores and newsstands,” Leah Price, a professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading,” said in a phone interview. “You could buy them anywhere at the spur of the moment rather than planning to go to this specialized store, of which there might be only one in the town where you lived. So in that sense, you could see the paperback as an ancestor to the ebook. It’s like that old Amazon Kindle ad, where you can think of a book and in a minute you’ve got it. Same thing with paperbacks.”

The physical book isn’t the only thing that has evolved. The kinds of books that readers reach for in the summertime have changed over time as well. In 1968, James Baldwin, writing in the Book Review, urged readers to engage with books grappling with the question of race, such as the works of Ralph Ellison or “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” In 1999, as Y2K loomed, The Times’s recommendations included books on string theory and memes along with select science fiction. Summer reading today has expanded well beyond the summer novel, from romance to mystery to fantasy to thrillers. The Book Review did not offer selections of “Fiction by Famous Hands” or “Noteworthy Long Stories” on its 2021 summer list, but sports books, Hollywood tell-alls and true crime did make the cut.

So what is it that makes something a summer book? “Summer, like every other time, is a good time for good books and an especially good time for long ones in which neither the author nor the reader feels hurried,” Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in the Book Review in 1950. “It is a good time, and an especially good time, for reading what one wants to read for no reason except that one does want to read it.”

Today’s summer reading often shares several hallmarks of the 19th-century works of Howard or Alcott. The books are engrossing. They transport the reader away from their everyday life. And yes, many of them continue to feature romantically driven plots that take place at an American summer locale — think the Nantucket novels of Elin Hilderbrand or any of the coastal romances by Nicholas Sparks.

Most important, they entice the reader with the possibility of long sunlit days spent unmoored from everyday restraints and immersed in a literary world, whatever shape it may take. As the writer Hildegarde Hawthorne explained in the Book Review in 1907, the true pleasure of summer reading lies not so much in the novel itself but in the choice to devote oneself to it.

“A deep peace fills your soul,” she wrote. “Here is this delicious book and the whole day, both yours.”


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