The Golden Age of Reading by Christine Gunderson

Our topic this month is summer love. And what’s not to love about summer, especially if you’re a kid? No job, no school, no homework. Just the pool and friends and fun for nine or ten sun-kissed weeks.
And if you’re a certain kind of kid, the type who would rather be with Harry Potter than with real people, then summer is a feast of words.
In a column several years ago, a Washington Post book critic gave a name to this fantastic time in a person’s life. You’re too young to have a job, but old enough to read really good books. He called it the Golden Age of Reading.
If you love books, you probably remember your own Golden Age of Reading. Maybe it was the summer you discovered Theresa May Alcott and devoured all the Little Women books. Or found A Wrinkle in Time. Or The Hobbit.
My Golden Age of Reading started the summer between fourth and fifth grade with Gone with the Wind. Yes, I know. This is totally inappropriate reading material for a ten year old and today’s parents, teachers and librarians would not approve.
Today children are tested to determine something called their Accelerated Reading Level. They’re strongly encouraged to read books that match this number. If I’d had an AR number as a child, Gone with the Wind would not have been on the list of approved reading material.
But I was kid back in the 70’s, so no one was really paying much attention.
We ate Twinkies and hotdogs filled with nitrates while watching Land of the Lost with our legs splayed out at our sides (not crisscross apple sauce) with our eyes inches from the television screen while drinking high fructose corn syrup from plastic cups riddled with BPA.
Our mothers were too busy chain smoking, drinking Tab and watching soap operas to pay much attention to what we were watching or reading. It was a glorious time to be a kid.
Some of my friends starting reading Flowers in the Attic in fifth and sixth grade. Flowers in the Attic is the literary gateway drug that leads to romance novels.
By fifteen they were hopelessly addicted to Barbara Cartland and Victoria Holt. They were hooked on reading and couldn’t kick the habit. And of course, as you might have predicted, some of these girls came to a very bad end.
They became writers.
I try to practice the same form of benign literary neglect with my kids. Every Friday during the summer we go to Barnes and Noble and pick out a new book. I tell them to pick out anything that looks interesting to them, regardless of the AR level or genre. A good book is a good book.
For my nine year old, great literature means a series of wonderful National Geographic books filled with ridiculous facts. He reads them out loud to the rest of us in the car. And it is interesting to learn that ninety percent of all parents steal their children’s Halloween candy. Or that John Adams once had a pet alligator. Who knew, right?
 No can see inside someone else’s imagination. What intrigues me might not intrigue them. What they read isn’t important. It’s the act of reading that matters. My son is learning this as he enters his own Golden Age of Reading.
And there is nothing more satisfying than laying under a tree on a beautiful summer day as a playful breeze ruffles your hair, but you don’t feel it because you’re a thousand miles away, lost in the world a complete stranger created for you using nothing but the words inside his or her head. That’s magic. And having an unlimited amount of time to experience this magic?
That’s heaven.

That’s summer.


  1. Love this line: No can see inside someone else’s imagination. This is one of the great aspects of being a writer-getting others to share our imagination. It's one of the things I particularly like about doing book reviews because I'm trying to understand one person's imagination well enough to get many others inside it.

  2. The summer between 4th and 5th grade I read Catcher in the Rye and Summer of '42. Yeah, no one was paying attention. :-)

  3. You've just described my entire upbringing. Except for the Tab....

  4. Those were always my summers, too! Me and my books and my cat...


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