A Season Unbound

It’s summertime. Do you know where your books are?

There are two types of summer reading: The kind that makes you smarter. And the kind that makes you dumber.

American society assigns readers to one category or the other based on age. If you’re a young reader, your seasonal reading will be forcibly devoted to stemming the riptide of stupidity otherwise known as three months without compulsory education. That’s assuming, of course, that a head filled with talking animals (Animal Farm), murderous child castaways (Lord of the Flies) and increasingly familiar technological dystopias (1984, Brave New World) will best groom impressionable young minds for an academic career of standardized testing followed by a lifetime of corporate droneship. If we want to prepare students for real-world success, shouldn’t we instead be teaching them how to shutter their imaginations, blindly follow the rules and improve their Scantron penmanship? If you’re a mature reader, with 12-odd years of required reading under your belt, then you’re ushered into the wide yet shallow “literary” genre known as Beach Reads. The marketing-fantasy behind this type of reading goes like this: After so many weeks of lazing in the sand on some pristine island off the coast of Bali, you need something to do with yourself. Since you’re en plein-air, the activity cannot be playing videogames or watching a movie …. oh wait, now it can? … OK, scratch that. Let’s try again: After so many weeks of lazing on some exclusive, exotic beach, vacationers will eventually tire of using their iPads to play video games, watch movies and post wish-you-were-here photos on Facebook. So they will turn to a new activity: using their iPads to read books.

But what kind of books? Since this target audience is on a beach, taking a much-needed break from their 24-hour BlackBerry-tethered lives of frenzied corporate droneship, they cannot be called upon to tax their brains with anything resembling intellectual depth or emotional complexity. So the publishing industry offers them the literary equivalent of a smoothie. In short, it’s mind-food that you don’t have to cut, chew or even hold with two hands. Men slurp down cloak-and-dagger thrillers by insanely prolific authors that are more brand than person, such as May’s new release, 11th Hour by James Patterson (co-written by Maxine Paetro). Women politely sip romances and/or chick-lit that will eventually become Lifetime channel movies and/or hit HBO cultural phenomena with film sequels of ever-decreasing quality. Sounds too stereotypical to be true? You obviously haven’t seen the photos on Amazon’s website advertising their Kindle. CEO Jeff Bezos purposely designed an e-reader with “e-ink” that can be clearly seen in glaring sunlight to accommodate hot chicks who want to read while sunbathing in revealing-yet-classy swim attire.

Need more proof? High up on Amazon’s suggestions for summer beach reads is the debut novel by former Real Housewife/creator of the Skinnygirl Margarita, Bethenny Frankel. The book is called Skinnydipping (Touchstone, $25), and it’s about aspiring actress Faith Brightstone who becomes a New York entrepreneur, joins a reality TV show and must choose between love and fame … unless she can “have it all.” Yes, this work of fiction is eerily similar to the reality star’s own life (down to the protagonist’s reversed initials). And yes, the girl on the book cover eerily resembles the very same famous fitness guru. But those qualities, which some might call un-creative, will probably be selling points. Frankel is already a New York Times best-selling author of weight-loss books, and she has a large enough media presence to ensure robust sales, no matter the quality of her prose. Truly, Skinnydipping is either a harbinger of the apocalypse or a “sassy, fun and moving novel,” as one Amazon reviewer describes it.

Ironically, only schoolteachers and Frenchmen get enough vacation time to spend 72 hours in transit and tire of movies and video games. Yet the teachers can’t afford a trip to Bali, and the French are probably too busy reading absurdist poetry (poetry?!) to stoop to something called Beach Reads. If the marketers actually wanted to capture a realistic demographic, they would call it this: Apartment Pool Reads With Constant Interruptions to Force Your Rebellious Son to Begin The Catcher in the Rye. A newly popular subgenre would be called: Stealing The Hunger Games From Your Tween Daughter With the Excuse That She Should be Reading The Great Gatsby. An even more popular (i.e., profitable) sub-subgenre would be called: Reading 50 Shades of Gray on Your Kindle So Nobody Knows You Have a Naughty Streak While Ogling the 19-Year-Old Lifeguard and Nagging Your Daughter to Finish The Scarlet Letter So She Can Get That College Scholarship and You Can Finally Save for That Trip to Bali. Actually, there is a name for that last one: Mommy Porn.

In the end, the problem with summer reading is that it’s all about some large entity telling you what to do, be it the government’s education system or the corporate publishing industry. Where’s the fun in that? It’s your summer, your meager vacation allotment, your eyes and your brain. Stand up to The Man: Go to the library, where the books are free and a much, kinder gentler government entity will tell you what to read. No, seriously, at Clark County libraries, they even have these cute little bookmarks with book suggestions, a different genre on each bookmark. If that doesn’t see you through the hump of August, then … well, the library offers movies and music, too.