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“A Summer’s Dream”

June 10, 2013

“Every night we listened
for a horned owl.
In the horned lamp flame,
the wallpaper glistened.”

These lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “A Summer’s Dream” appeared in the New Yorker 65 years ago. To me, they have the flavor of summer. While I have certain explicit recollections, mostly what’s in my memory is a mood, a melange of idealized qualities.

It is with great fondness that I recall periods of time in which nothing happened except the waiting for an owl or the watching of shadows flickering (maybe from candlelight but more likely from headlights).

This is not affection for laziness but rather for a state of mind that is not accessible through continuously fractured attention.

I hope summer is still this way for someone. It would be a shame if everyone answered potential boredom with distraction. But, these days we have many ways to push a button and receive a tidbit of reward.

I used to hear this from children more often than now: “I’m bored.” I loved to say, “It’s ok to be bored. Good things can come out of boredom.” Not all parents will agree, but I believe the experience of boredom is one way children develop healthy and helpful inner capacities.

If video, phone, music, the Internet, were not immediately at hand, a child just might make other inquiries of self or the world. I’m not advocating a summer boot camp of Spartan existence. Just a different experience of time.

Reading is one option. Not everyone has a natural inclination for reading. It might be especially important for disinclined children to read through the summer to maintain ability into the next school year. Reading remains a vital skill.

The library’s Summer Reading Program is open to all children of a certain age group, defined by a fuzzy lower limit at which a child will pay attention while being read to and an upper limit of those children who have just completed 6th grade.

We give readers a book log in which to write titles of books they’ve read along with the number of pages. The pages equate to points to spend in the library “store.” After 750 points, the reader gets a book, as well.

If “prizes” seem like bribery to you instead of reward, I won’t quibble. Whatever makes reading attractive for children in a culture of distraction is probably fine.

It has been demonstrated many times over decades of studies that Summer Reading Programs (whether a library’s or your own) maintain and often improve the reading abilities of students.

A summer of no reading produces a loss up to one grade level. For the student, that’s like walking up a sandy hill, each step slipping part way back, which is tedious and oppressive. Real boredom.

This is not an inspirational column in tone or intent. Rather, I hope merely to convince you to inspire children in your life to read this summer—it’s good for their skills, good for their souls.

But perhaps you’ll be moved, too, remembering a balmy afternoon in the shade with no particular attachment to demands, worries, or regrets, when the leisure to lift a good book presented itself for hours, interrupted only by an attendant delivering a drink of your choice.

Or perhaps this will inspire you about books in some way: A bookseller taking a last glance through the leftovers of our spring book sale picked up a fair-to-good copy of a book of drawings by architect Louis Kahn.

It sold for $120. What marvelous desires might go unfilled if “everything” were digital?

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