Finding Value in Casual Summer Reading

This week the bell rang for the last time at my youngest son’s school. The kids cleared out their desks and he came home with a back pack full of construction paper projects, math books and graded science papers that had been lining the inside of his desk for the better part of the year. It’s summer vacation and he’s excited about going to see his grandparents on the west coast.

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Summer is in full swing. The nights are short and warm. The grass is green. It all makes me a little nostalgic for the summers of my childhood.

I never considered myself that much of a reader as a kid, or at least that wasn’t how I would have defined myself. But I can’t help remembering long, lazy summer days in Ontario cottage country, sitting by the lake, with no TV, no computer, no “devices,” just reading.

On some days the book didn’t even matter. It was casual reading. No pressure. No essay on symbolism due the next morning. No pop quiz to prove I’d gotten through the assigned chapters.

It started with Archie I think, and the gang at Riverdale. We could pick those up at the supermarket when we went into town.

I used to read the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure like a total coward. I’d stick a finger in the page at every decision point so I could go back if I didn’t like the outcome. As a kid I went through those by the pile. Along those lines there were also the “Micro Adventure” books written in second person. They had little computer programs in BASIC that you could type out on a Commodore 64. Well… someone could. I was stuck at the cottage. No computer.

My sister had the foresight to actually pack books for our trips the cottage. Her stash of books wasn’t necessarily the first pile I went for, but I got through my share of Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club and maybe the occasional Sweet Valley Twins. We don’t talk about Flowers in the Attic.

One summer we went camping up and of course, it snowed in July. It’s funny the details you remember about a trip like that… shampoo frozen in its bottle, a station wagon that wouldn’t start, and leaches in the lake. That trip I picked up my first horror book from the campground general store… from one those squeaky metal turning displays. I stayed up past midnight, tucked into my sleeping bag, reading by flashlight as my breath fogged up in front of me about a kid who had the power of astral projection.

As I got older, I started reading magazines. I had so many Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines I should have had a subscription to each. Of course, I was also an avid reader of Inside Kung Fu, because there was short period in my life where I was planning a career as, you know, a ninja.

I picked up a book on the Bermuda Triangle by complete serendipity. It was probably an old library discard, but my mom told me I could pick any book I wanted and somehow that one ended up in my hand. It was full of pseudo science and crackpot theories, but below the surface it carried a message that resonated deeply with me… that there was more to the world than what they taught us in school. Ultimately that book led to later popular, but more mainstream science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

That was how I found my way to a career in physics.

In the end, there’s tremendous value in reading. Casual summer reading, those books that you dust off from the closet and pull out just to pass a rainy afternoon, or to relax before you go to bed, can lead to unimaginable places.

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