Summer was a blissful season when I was young. I basked in the freedom of unstructured days and uncluttered calendars.
The summer vacations of my youth were filled with vigorous activity and exploration, but they were more than that.
During my summer vacations I traveled to distant, exotic places and met legions of interesting characters. On some occasions, I even traveled through time, and I did it all with books.
I read everything in sight when I was a lad. I had a voracious appetite, and books were my food and drink.
I read in all seasons and in every spare moment, but summers were special.
The beginning of the summer reading season signaled a feast of long, uninterrupted periods of reading during which I could immerse myself in a book and abandon myself to wherever the author would lead me.
Instead of snatching brief intervals of reading between other activities, reading became a primary activity.
There were plenty of days when my friends and I would disappear into the woods for a day of exploring, or hop on our bikes and ride. On some days, though, I would opt for travels of the mind.
The house in which I lived had one of those magnificent old porches that one just doesn’t see anymore. It ran the width of the house with steps on either end. It had a roof, which provided shade, and otherwise was open to the air so one could taste the breeze and smell the intoxicating aromas of summer.
There was a semicircle of garden in front of the porch, filling in the “Y” formed by the sidewalk. Beyond that was the yard, surrounded by more gardens and bordered by a hedge.
On the south side was a row of lilac bushes, and beyond that, the neighbor’s enormous pine trees.
The best feature of the porch, however, was the railings. There were four pillars holding up the front of the roof, and between them were magnificent wide railings that were the perfect place to perch on a summer’s day and disappear into a book.
There were a thousand different ways to sit on the railings. One could sit with one’s back to a pillar and one’s knees pulled up to one’s chest. One could sit sideways, with one’s feet hanging down. One could even lie on the railing if one’s balance was good.
This fragrant and shady oasis was the scene of many adventures.
Some of my peers vowed never to touch a book from the end of one school term to the start of the next, but to me, reading was far from torture.
On the literary voyages launched from my porch, I was transported one day to Robinson Crusoe’s Island, and on another fought side by side with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I went fly fishing for trout on Michigan’s Two Hearted River, and searched for gold in the Klondike.
On other days, I traveled the Oregon Trail, or lived by my wits on the streets of old London.
There were no limits on where I could go or what I could do.
I solved mysteries and I learned about people who lived in different places and at different times.
This kind of self-guided literary tour inevitably leads to discovery discovery not only of others but of oneself.
Between the covers of those books I found a key to understanding. As I sought to understand those characters, they helped me to see myself and others more clearly as well.
This can be especially liberating for young people. When we are very young, much of our world view comes from our parents and those close to us.
Reading allows us to leave our parents’ side and go on a journey of discovery with an author we have never met.
Our world is instantly expanded beyond the old boundaries. Instead of having someone tell us how things are, we are allowed to discover for ourselves how things are, and that is a powerful experience.
The large blocks of time afforded by the summer vacations of my youth provided a priceless opportunity to dive into books. I’m not sure that kind of uninterrupted time exists anymore.
Today, people of all ages seem permanently glued to electronic devices that are forever demanding attention.
And, even if it was possible to pry our mobile phones or tablets out of our hands for a few moments, the average attention span today seems to be measured in seconds, not hours.
Somewhere along the line, someone decided that the kind of unstructured time that provided opportunity for personal growth is somehow unacceptable. Many parents today seem determined to fill every hour of their children’s time with structured activities guided by adults, and that is a tragedy.
People of my generation had the luxury of learning to negotiate and get along with others by doing it. When we got together with friends, we made up our own games and mutually agreed on the rules. We didn’t rely on some adult to impose and enforce the rules.
We learned to think for ourselves by doing just that.
I still enjoy reading as much as I ever did, but it is a rare treat to have a long, uninterrupted period of time in which to read.
Sometimes, if the wind is just right, and I manage to escape from a climate-controlled office for a few moments, the intoxicating aroma of lilacs and fresh-mown grass on the breeze take me back to the golden days of my youth when anything was possible.