8 Summer Reading Assignments Worth Giving A Second Chance, Because Not Everything Your Teachers Gave You To Read Was The Worst
As a teenager, summer meant one thing: more time to read. I spent hours curled up with stories of epic adventure or teen romance, ignoring my parents’ pleas to go outside. (I occasionally compromised by sitting on the porch while reading. You take what you can get.)
Unfortunately, come late July, I was inevitably faced with a reality check — I hadn’t so much as started my summer reading assignments, and it was time to put down my fantasy novels in favor of Shakespeare plays and experimental modernist narratives. Yet, as much as I dreaded tackling their difficult language and unfortunate lack of dragons, those more serious books actually turned out to be an enjoyable counter to the enervating power of 100-degree weather. Some of them were boring, sure (*cough* Self-Reliance *cough*), but more than a few turned out to be not only surprisingly engaging but also genuinely thought provoking.
After college, I returned to those summer book binges, rereading Tamora Pierce novels, or checking out whole stacks of weird historical mysteries from the library. But, I found that without the more serious texts to break up the fluff, I ended up unsatisfied. It wasn’t long before I was mixing in a Nabokov novel here, and some Elizabeth Bishop poems there.
Just because I now pick my own edifying reading, doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten the books that started this habit. In fact, I’m thinking of revisiting some of my old summer assignments this year, as part of my ongoing battle against heat-induced lethargy. In case you’d like to do the same, here are eight summer reading books that are more fun than you might remember, but won’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying from lack of use.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
With bullfights, hopeless love affairs and a truly impressive amount of drinking, Hemingway’s first novel is the closest the Lost Generation ever came to producing a beach read. The unconsummated relationship between Lady Brett and Jake Barnes plays out like a jaded, drunken version of 500 Days of Summer, while Hemingway’s penchant for understatement enhances the dissolute mood.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Without fail, each of my summer reading lists included a Shakespeare play, usually a tragedy. King Lear feels like a bit too much doom and gloom for June, however — why not immerse yourself in the fantastical farce of Twelfth Night instead? It still offers gorgeous turns of phrase and deep insight into the human condition, but they’re interspersed with cross-dressing, love triangles, and plenty of mistaken identities.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Along with a Shakespeare play, most years' summer assignments included one novel by someone who wasn't a dead white dude (or a dead white lady, to be fair). The contemporary selection was inevitably my favorite, and Atwood’s post-apocalyptic adventure remains one of the books I recommend to friends most often. It offers the ideal mix of social commentary, terrifying predictions of the future, and adorable animal hybrids for a summer read. Even better, Atwood has since written two sequels, so you won’t run out of material to base your disaster planning on any time soon.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Of all the great 19th century novels, Jane Eyre is the most readable: the epic romance of moral Jane and dashing Rochester, with all of its Gothic complications, makes for quite the page turner. But like all the Bronte sisters’ novels, Jane Eyre is also deeply concerned with issues of gender and class. Plus, the story’s ghostly touches make it especially appropriate for reading next to a campfire (or in a castle, if that's more your thing).
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Golding’s brief novel is the first summer reading assignment I remember getting, and it’s a prime example of the form: equally packed with action and import. The hijinks of Ralph, Piggy, and their fellow castaways are entertaining, sure, but they also reveal a deeply disturbing vision of human nature.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This book is long, dense, and occasionally very confusing (I could never keep the Josés, Arcadios, and Aurelianos straight), but you should give it a chance all the same. Reading Márquez’s history of the Buendía family is like falling into a tropical fever dream — after a few hours spent in their world, you'll begin to think that falling in love with your aunt and then dying in a freak windstorm is completely normal.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
The Common Core famously encourages teachers to assign more nonfiction, so this list wouldn’t be complete without at least one true story. Krakauer’s famous account of a deadly trip up Everest is still terrifying: it's best read when there's absolutely no chance of your freezing to death — and the air conditioner doesn’t count.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
This one's a bit of a cheat, since I actually read it when the flu kept me out of school for a week, but Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist retelling of the Arthurian myth is just about the perfect summer reading book. It’s so easy to get lost in Bradley’s fantastical depiction of Britain and novel take on Camelot’s extensive cast of characters that you won’t even notice that she’s got you reconsidering the way we understand history.
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