Leaving Cert and A level results were out late last week, to the joy of many and the chagrin of others. As an American student, I never experienced either of these exam processes, but witnessing the twinned celebrations and tears – both of happiness and grief – got me thinking about my own high school years. To tell the truth, it all seems so long ago, that my memories are generally quite hazy, though I imagine the best description of those four long years would have to go to Dickens (who obviously used it in a much different context): It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
A dedicated nerd and bookworm, my favourite bits about high school often revolved around the academics. For instance, I actually looked forward to receiving, every summer like clockwork, the book lists for the upcoming school year. With long sunny days and only a part-time job in the local ice cream stand to occupy me, I always got a head start on my English class reading. So, the summer before my second year of high school, I immersed myself in, among other texts, Watership Down, for which I bear an inveterate (and possibly irrational) hatred to this day. Recovering from my third year of high school, I escaped into Far from the Madding Crowd and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The latter served as a tantalizing glimpse into Joyce and a foreshadow of my eventual career choice, while the former remains one of my favourite novels of all time.
Although these books were all assigned reading – and therefore not everyone’s cup of tea, especially over vacation – I loved the idea of getting lists of recommended reading to structure my reading choices over the summer. Even then, I lived in fear of choosing books I wouldn’t enjoy, thus feeling as if I’d wasted my time – always a potential danger when faced with the immense and intimidating choice of my nearest megalith bookstore. If we were studying it in school, though, surely it was both entertaining and well-written, right, and therefore the perfect choice? My teenage self probably disagreed on that front when it came to Watership Down, but, for the most part, my theory about reading lists held firm.
Now that I write about books for a living (meagre as it may be!), I’m the one compiling reading lists for my students, and the time I have for my own ‘summer’ reading is fleeting. Even when I do have a chance for light, non-work related reading, I often find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of fiction, let alone other literary genres, now available in the average shop. On the one hand, this immensity gives me hope about the future of the printed word – to be very dramatic about it – in the face of growing competition from the likes of Kindle readers. On the other, however, it makes me yearn for a summer book list to point me in the right direction. Faced with choice, I admit frequently to falling back on my own lists of work-related novels – those ‘should-reads’ that I just haven’t had a chance to peruse in earnest over the years. While this is an excellent method of providing fodder for Pue’s pieces as well as keeping my work going even while I’m not in work, it also means that I often feel as if I’m missing out on a great deal of truly amazing contemporary literature. So, dear readers, tell me this – what do you read when you’re on your summer holidays? What authors, genres, and titles from the past twenty years or so have really got you going? How do you decide what to read – what books to buy, what authors to look out for, etc? Your comments and suggestions, obviously, will be compiled into a list!