Harrington-Lueker, Donna. Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading.

Cover for Books for Idle Hours

Harrington-Lueker, Donna. Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. 248 pages. $90.00 (cloth). $29.95 (paper). ISBN 9781625343833.

While we may sometimes remember particular “beach reads” and other vacation reading we bring with us, most of the light reading that dominates the myriad summer reading lists isn’t meant to last. Donna Harrington-Lueker has traced the origins of the phenomenon of summer reading in the late-nineteenth-century United States, highlighting the role of ephemerality and entertainment as publishers and reviewers developed the concept of “summer reading,” as well as how tenacious many of the practices of summer reading are, from reading in public spaces to stockpiling books in convenient corners of a hotel room or guest house. Focusing on the American East Coast with some attention given to the Great Lakes, Harrington-Lueker offers a rich and readable analysis of the intertwining efforts of publishers, booksellers, vacationers, hoteliers, and even architects to define and promote what summer reading is, who and what it is for, and where and on what terms it can (or should) be done.

The opening chapters center on publishers who developed series of cheap paperback novels for quick consumption in resort areas and the rail and steamboat transits that carried ever-growing waves of tourists to those centers. Long suspect as “trash” among nineteenth-century tastemakers, paperbacks were recast, sometimes through strenuous marketing efforts by publishers, as a prop in the cultural theater of middle-class, female leisure. These book series, usually selling for fifty cents a volume instead of the less reputable “dime novels” they resembled, offered steady sellers and British standards as well as made-to-order potboilers. As Harrington-Lueker demonstrates in the book’s middle chapters, the formulas of the “summer novel” reflected the locales where they were expected to be consumed, as sites of summer leisure became increasingly popular settings for novelists intent on earning a literary income. William Dean Howells, the tastemaker of the Atlantic and Harper’s in the 1870s and 1880s, proved to be one of the most prolific and interesting participants in the new genre of the summer novel, exploring resort spaces as sites of cultural ambition and contestation in novels such as The Landlord of Lion’s Head, while even passing references to summer vacations in his novels became useful class markers to set up the social tensions that so fascinated Howells.

Harrington-Lueker turns to the role of readers in creating and negotiating summer reading in her closing chapters, using wide-ranging research into diaries, letters, architectural plans and descriptions, and promotional literature for organizations like the still-active Chatauqua and its once-mighty counterpart, the Catholic Summer School and Reading Circles. The challenges of reading in crowded, highly visible public spaces appear here alongside pockets of privacy that readers, often young women, carved out for themselves on verandas, in parlors, and even on mountaintops. As the mention of Chatauqua may suggest, Harrington-Lueker emphasizes the importance of summer reading as a space for self-improvement, especially for women who did not yet have wide access to higher education, even as cheap, light reading fare continued to proliferate through and beyond the end of the nineteenth century.

Late in the book, Harrington-Lueker quotes Roxane Gay in connection with a recent controversy over the “peak caucasity” of a prominent summer reading list. As Gay emphasizes, the exclusion of writers of color from the list in question was nothing new; in the world of leisure reading as elsewhere, white publishers, reviewers, and readers have long ignored the work of authors of color. Harrington-Lueker rightly points out the presence of sizable vacationer communities of African-Americans, both at popular white resort places like Saratoga Spring, New York and in more Black-focused areas like Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, as well as the silence in most white-focused writings on resort areas over the presence of African-American tourists. Yet what writers of color may have been offered for readers’ summer perusal, or what readers of color preferred to consume on vacation, has virtually no place in this account. This avenue, as well as the varieties of summer reading promoted and practiced in other US regions and other countries, is ripe for further research.

Researchers in those areas will certainly owe a debt to Books for Idle Hours for bringing together such a wealth of source material to reframe our understanding of the place of leisure reading in the first generations of the rise of modern leisure culture. From a wider scope, this book makes a valuable contribution to the history of reading and the publishing of fiction in the industrial era, and thanks to the University of Massachusetts Press’s affordable paperback format, summer readers of the self-improvement persuasion may enjoy, and occasionally be startled by, seeing themselves in a historical mirror in this book.

Christopher N. Phillips