The Agony and The Ecstasy: Summer Reading

18 years ago this week found a desperate, 17-year-old me scrambling to secure a VHS copy of The Elephant Man from my local library because school was starting and I had yet to read the required (and dreaded) Summer Reading assignment*!  Now friends, believe me when I tell you that cribbing on a test was waaay harder before the advent of the internet; Sparknotes and Pink Monkey were the stuff of the procrastinating student’s (read: my) dreams.  Instead, I was shelling out $4.95 at Walden Books for a book version of Cliff Notes.  (The irony that I read a Cliff Notes book to avoid reading the actual novel is not lost on me.)

Almost two decades later I’ve crossed over to the dark side, creating and correcting Summer Reading tests instead of sweating through them, attempting to fool my teacher into believing I read the books with vague references to conflicts, plot structure, and theme in my essays. 

The (only) great thing about my checkered academic history is that I know ALL the tricks because I’ve pulled them.  I assign my students two books for Summer Reading–one classic and one contemporary.  I know that most of them use Sparknotes and the like for the classic…but not for the contemporary one! 

As I was grading Summer Reading quizzes (given the first day of school!) last year, I came across these gems.  The candor!  The wit!  I love my job.  Let’s have a look at a few of my favorites from 2008.  What will 2009 bring?  One can only imagine!


"I didn't read this book because I thought that Sparknotes had every book. So, I was planning on reading it last night but Sparknotes didn't have it. 😦 "

C’mon!  Does it get any better than that?   Well, maybe…


And this, in a nutshell, is why I love my job and adore Summer Reading–if only for the fodder they both provide my blog. 

So, were you a concientious student who always did his/her Summer Reading or were you a hellion like me–waiting until the last possible second to do your school work?!?  Does Summer Reading serve a purpose?  Did your school district spare you (or your kids) from the pain that is Summer Reading?  Inquiring minds want to know.

*The Collector by John Fowles was the other book I was required to read.  When I finally got around to reading the novel (a few months into the school year) it became one of my favorite books! 

27 responses to “The Agony and The Ecstasy: Summer Reading

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever had to do a summer reading thing! I’m somewhat jealous. I think a friend of mine had a summer reading assignment once, but she was in AP English.

    I do have a story related to summer reading. It is quite horrific.

    Once in 11th grade, after I had transferred to a new school, the teacher suddenly told me that I was supposed to have read two books over the summer and I was still responsible for them even though I a) knew nothing about the assignment (no email, no letter?!) and b) she had only told me three days before a paper was due on the things I was supposed to read.


    (I refused to do it and actually then I dropped out of that school. HA.)

  2. I’m baaack!

    Never had summer reading, probably because my schools were never on the ball enough to know which students were going to be taught by which teacher until close to the beginning of the school year.

    On the other hand, I have all sorts of anecdotes for my hijinks vis-à-vis straight-up book reports. My one self-imposed rule was that it was dishonorable to use Cliffs Notes (I’d never even heard of Sparks Notes). Some of my better exploits (I’ve related some of these before):

    • not having an assigned title, choosing an obscure book I was nearly certain the teacher hadn’t read, and writing a paper extrapolating from the summaries and blurbs on the back cover and flyleaf. A.

    • waiting until the eleventh hour to read Anna Karenina for a Russian literature class. I chose it from the list because I knew it was shorter than the imposing War and Peace and I was more interested in its smaller-scale story. True, it was shorter, but only by Tolstoy’s inflated standards. At 800+ pages it was significantly more svelte than the 1200+ of War and Peace, but still practically insurmountable by the time I realized my error. I proposed a custom assignment to the teacher, that I would write an original short story incorporating all we had learned that semester about characteristic themes, styles, symbolism, and so on. He agreed, hesitantly and suspiciously. I knocked out a murder-mystery with equal parts Dostoevsky, Turgenev, a smattering of lesser authors and Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. No Tolstoy because I hadn’t read him. To say that the teacher was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement; he suggested I submit it to a contest! A+ (but no luck in the contest– possibly because I plagiarized an inconsequential passage describing the details of a police building’s parking garage from Gorky Park.

    • delivering an oral report on Moby-Dick without having read it, relying instead on cultural osmotic familiarity and selective sampling of minor and obscure chapters, for verisimilitude. My preparation was minimal and a winged in a haze (the adrenaline rush of such an approach being the best way to overcome my crippling stagefright). To this day, I haven’t the slightest notion of what I said. B+.

    • finally, stretching back to fifth grade, my favorite and most subversive response. I flat-out didn’t read the book or write the report and simply informed the teacher that I didn’t complete the assignment “because the dog ate my conscience.”

    I think it’s time for me to start blogging again.

  3. That is hilarious! I can’t imagine ever admitting to using SparkNotes or anything like that. Maybe that was the Catholic school difference. I usually read the books or at least skimmed them enough to feel as though I had a decent chance at blinding my teachers with my BS. LOL!

  4. Ah ha ha! Those students are adorable. How cute is the hopeful “Love always!” I was a bit of a swot at school and always read the books. I didn’t always do my math homework tho…

  5. I loved summer reading, but then I was a total bookworm. Books helped me get through my childhood and adolescence in one piece. I read anything someone put in front of me.

  6. I went to school in the dark ages before summer reading was assigned. I loved to read way back then, though, so I would spend my summer reading my older sister’s assigned reading from the previous school year. I have to admit at the beginning of your post, I was doing a little math in my head 17 + 18 =

    • Ha! I just did the math myself to make sure I didn’t make an error. Could it be so long since I graduated?!? I’m wearing PIGTAILS in my hair at this moment for crying out loud.

      PS. I loved reading too; maybe I disliked authority. Hee hee.

  7. Bwahahaha! I loved summer reding but I was a certifiable nerd. The only time we had to admit (on the honor system) where we were in a book was in my senior year AP English class for Bleak House reading quizzes. I think my teacher was a little surprised I went from having read about 30 pages on Friday (should have been at 200 and some, incidentally) to being finished on Monday but the quiz grades certainly showed the truth of it.

    When I taught freshman English at university, I purposely chose books that didn’t have a Cliff’s Notes version. I can’t tell you how many students dropped my class when I let that bombshell drop the first day!

  8. I know not this Summer Reading of which you speak. Thank god.

    I’m kinda bummed I quit teaching before blogging became big. Oh, the stories. 😉

  9. I actually like summer reading because it gave me an excuse to not play sports… though, I was more of the give-me-a-list-and-let-me-choose club.
    With the exception of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” I can’t tell you anything else I read over a summer. I can tell you that my teacher remarked that I was the first student to be able to rationalize how/why Mr. Wilde seemed a bit light in the loafers.

  10. This cracks me up!

    It would never occur to me to tell the teacher I was essentially going to half-ass it by reading the cliff’s notes or watch the movie. Wasn’t that supposed to be a secret? Wasn’t that supposed to be so you could give the allusion of reading the book?


  11. I too am too old to have had summer reading assignments. But I’ll you one reason my brothers hated me: I would always get to school assignments right away. I almost never left them for the last minute. I’m so corny I often read my niece’s summer reading list with her (she’s now 14). And we usually have it finished by the end of June.

    It’s okay to throw things at me.

  12. I was a good girl and always read my books.

  13. First of all, that note is priceless. There’s too much to say about it, so I’m going to say nothing at all — though I’m particularly fond of the “love always” on the bottom!

    I have long been the nerd who ran out and got the summer reading books months in advance — usually, say, April or May — and had them read by the end of our annual family vacation in June. One year I procrastinated a tad going into AP English and read one — GASP — a month before school . . . but it worked out well, considering it was the toughest one to get through and therefore the clearest in my mind when school started at the end of August.

    I definitely think summer reading plays an important role in our educational system — and exposes students to “classics” they might never otherwise read. Considering we had four months to read three books when I was in high school, it was no big deal . . . especially considering I was reading two or three novels a week once I started the English program in college! Oh, the good old days . . .

    *~*~* sparklesss *~*~*


  14. WOW! They don’t even get the point of the assignment. Just…WOW.

    When I was in school, I didn’t have any problems with reading books until “The Grapes of Wrath”. My GOD was that book boring. Ditto “The Great Gatsby”.

    By the time I was in AP English, I wanted to poke my eyes out. We read “Heart of Darkness” and “Catch-22” right after each other. I couldn’t make it through either of those books.

    I DID, however, make it through “Metamorphosis” and that story gave me nightmares.

    So basically, it is a good thing I found my love of reading before I was a student because otherwise I would probably never read another book again!

  15. I must have been a geek. I enjoyed the summer reading and actually read the book!

    What I cannot believe with these young folks, is that they admit to waiting until the last minute to even get the Sparknotes. Come on! Blame it on a natural disaster why don’t you (the tsunami warning had us flee our huts and my book was left behind).

  16. Hahaha, wow she didn’t even try to hide it. I mean, usually you at least tried to HIDE the fact that you read Sparknotes. I always did my summer reading but read the Sparknotes if the book was boring or hard to understand. Supplementary material!

    Y’all should join the “Back to School” reading challenge I am hosting. With all the talk about summer reading, I got nostalgic for those required reading classics!

  17. Oh I was a total nerd and always did my work … and never ever read Cliff’s Notes. It was a badge of honor with me!!!

    Thanks for sharing these comments … they just made me smile — and I loved your comment on the first one!

  18. LOL. I have used Sparknotes, I’m not going to lie. I used them for Mill on the Floss and not only passed, but GOT THE HIGHEST GRADE IN THE CLASS. It was either an epic win or an epic fail, depending on your opinion.

    Out of curiosity, what do you assign?
    For various summer reading experiences I have been assigned:
    Crime and Punishment
    Angela’s Ashes
    The Bell Jar
    The Scarlet Letter
    Catcher in the Rye
    The Chosen
    The House on Mango Street

    And as far as I can remember, that’s it!

    • Over the years, I’ve assigned Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Emma, Dibs in Search of Self, The House on Mango Street, No Promises in the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, The Collector, I Have Lived A Thousand Years, North To Freedom, and scores of others. For basic skills students, I assign classic and contemporary trade novels–Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, Tuesdays With Morrie, and other books I think reluctant readers might enjoy.

  19. These are hysterical!

  20. We never had summer reading when I was in high school. We did have book reports throughout the school year though. Junior year I had a six weeks book report project…I chose Gone with the Wind because I WANTED to read it! I read all year…and all summer…long, my whole life…and still do!

  21. Way back in my 7th grade year, my classmates and myself included had to take a year of reading. Now mind you I was decent reader as is and in my mind I in now way shape or form needed to be educated about reading…plus the teacher was a nut job. But I aquiesced. Now the way the class worked was each term we had to read several books then take a computerized book test to get points and by the end of the term we would have to have 30 points. As it goes harder books were more points and smaller books were fewer points ie you read a few longer books or a ton of small books for your point totals. The points were determined by your test out come. Needless to say I was doing well when all of a sudden one term I found myself several points shy of the 30 total. What did I do…I logged myself onto the computer and took two books test for movies that I had seen years before. Specifically The Secret Garden and one other (I can’t remember). It totally worked and I got all the points I needed (and more giggle). It was the only time I had an infraction with the reading police; and no my school district didn’t require summer reading chaching!!!!!

  22. Haha, that note is so funny! I can’t believe anyone would honestly admit they were trying to use sparknotes and the movie to make up for not reading the book. If your computer is broken, why NOT read a book instead of evading it? LOL.

    I was that nerdy kid who read all the books so early in the summer that I’d forgotten them by the time school started. I loved summer reading. I still like when people tell me what to read (as long as I can get my hands on it). And I loved the classics, as I read them voluntarily. Yep, total nerd here. My brother used to leave his books until the day before school, but at least he never used sparknotes or cliff’s notes!

  23. We didn’t have summer reading when I was in school but we did have quarterly book reports on assigned books. I was a book worm who read over five books a week, and I hated those book reports because I didn’t like most of the books. As a parent I despise summer reading. No one assigns light happy lives happily ever after books. They are all depressing and deep. My reluctant reader gained no love of reading, and my daughter who likes to read slogged through them, but then didn’t want to read other things that she might have enjoyed.

  24. my hubby and I both love to read. I always read the summer reading, a few times actually.
    Nat..maybe you could give me some advice. My 4th grade SS can read 5-8th grade books but is having trouble with actual comprehension. He can answer any multiple choice question correct but ask him to answer in true sentence for to a “who what when where why and how” question and he is having trouble. Any advice on how we can help him.
    sorry it’s so long.

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