Last week when I went to the Newton Free Library to return a book, I saw that librarians had strung a line of handmade pennants promoting the mayor’s annual Summer Reading Challenge. As a child, I loved these challenges, as I loved to read and cherished the excuse of a “challenge” to indulge in a beloved summer pastime. Summer reading programs are designed to entice children who would prefer to do anything other than read, but I didn’t need any sort of enticement.
When I was a kid, signing up for a summer reading challenge meant you’d be rewarded for the number of books you read, with prizes such as stickers and T-shirt decals for each milestone. Although I didn’t need such prizes to lure me to the library, every year I signed up regardless because getting rewarded to read was like piling prizes atop of prizes. What I looked forward to each summer, after all, was the freedom to read more than I could during the school year, when both classes and assigned homework got in the way. Rewarding me for reading in the summer time was like rewarding a child for eating candy.
In Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin advises against using rewards to encourage someone to cultivate a habit, as the habit itself should be its own reward. If the only reason you’re reading is to earn a sticker or T-shirt, you’ll probably stop reading after those rewards have ceased. For me, summer reading prizes were more of a bonus than a bribe, but I can understand Rubin’s perspective. If you’re trying to encourage a child who doesn’t like to read, offering prizes might work in the short term, but the reading habit will “stick” only if a child discovers he or she actually enjoys reading for its own sake.
Even now, I look forward to summertime as a chance to catch up with reading. During the school year, I spend too much time prepping classes and grading student papers. Summer is when I remind myself that the whole reason I became an English major, after all, is the simple fact that I love to read. During the lazy days of June, July, and August, I let my curiosity lead me, reading whatever catches my interest. Sometimes I’ll read something because a friend on Goodreads recommended it, like Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, or sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s related to a recent news story, like Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America. When I hear an author I like is coming out with a new book, I immediately request it from the library, content to wait my turn along with the other early-birds. This means my summer reading list is a kind of planned serendipity where new books I’d forgotten I’d requested, like Judy Blume’s new novel or Oliver Sacks’ new autobiography, suddenly show up, ready for me to read them: a surprise that is its own reward.