June — the seniors have graduated, the underclassmen have finished assessments (which are what we at kinder-gentler Williston used to call “exams”), and a lazy green quiet has settled onto the campus. Our parting shot to our returning students: “Goodbye, and don’t forget your summer reading!” It has been so for nearly a century.
I have a confession. Back in the summer of 1966, prior to my entering Williston Academy’s 9th grade, I was handed a list of perhaps half a dozen books. Now, I loved to read, almost at the expense of any other summer activity. And there was good material on the list, most especially Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk, which was an exciting story, although in retrospect, I don’t recall its subsequent mention even once in David Stevens’ English 9. But also on the list: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Now imagine yourself in 1966, as a 13-year-old boy who has recently discovered the works of Ian Fleming and is anxious to get back to them (albeit under the covers with a flashlight), but is faced with endless pages of prose about living in the woods and planting beans. I tried. I really did. But I couldn’t do it. And in the ensuing 51 years, I’ve tried several more times but, apparently scarred by my adolescent experience, I still find Walden barely readable. I think of Thoreau as the guy who put the “trance” in “transcendentalism.”
A summer reading requirement at Williston appears to date from the 1920s. No syllabi have surfaced from that early date. However, we have a list from 1941, which is worth reproducing in its entirety. (Please click images to enlarge).
Once one gets past the still-valid point about a “foundation for effective expression,” as well as whiff of testosterone, one notes that the requirement – a minimum of three books – isn’t especially onerous, despite a suggestion (“hearty cooperation”) that one attempt “as many as possible.” Where something doesn’t appeal, students are encouraged to move on. And nowhere is there even a hint of a test or paper in the fall.It is interesting to note what is, and isn’t, here. So many of these authors have fallen utterly out of fashion, never mind out of the canon, that some names are unrecognizable even to a pre-elderly librarian. And with few exceptions, almost everything is by American or English authors, the overwhelming majority of them male, and only one identifiable as an author of color.A 1953 list from Northampton School for Girls shows considerably more breadth. It also ups the ante with a September test.
The Northampton School pamphlet runs to 18 pages, more than we can reproduce here. Recommendations are coded by grade level: 1 for grade 9, 2 for 10, etc. It should be no surprise that there is a greater proportion of women authors. But there is also more of a focus on serious literature, especially for the upper grades. (Again, please click the images to enlarge.)
There are also many pages of serious nonfiction titles, including substantial biography and autobiography.
Principal Sarah B. Whitaker taught Bible. The presence of several novels in that section, particularly the works of the Polish-Yiddish writer Sholom Asch, are a bit of a surprise.
Progressive “muckraker” journalists such as Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens also suggest a far less “plain vanilla” approach than at Williston.
The Northampton School list also includes a substantial section of non-English material.
In 1958, Hélène Paquin Cantarella established an eleven-year reign over Northampton School’s senior English program. Writing that she was the most demanding teacher in the history of either Northampton or Williston is simply an understatement. Mrs. Cantarella took no prisoners – and to this day, her former students love her for it. Here is her English IV summer reading list from 1959, It begins with 18 required books, before suggesting a few dozen more.
For more about and by one of Northampton School’s legendary giants, please read Hélène Cantarella – “Noblesse Oblige.”
With the merging of the two schools in 1971 came a curricular emphasis on electives, which was reflected in the summer reading requirements. But there is also a sense, particularly in the English syllabus, that we had started to catch up with the 20th century. And the list certainly reflects the decade, with J.R.R. Tolkien and E. B. White having supplanted some of the favorites of earlier generations.
And what are Williston students reading this summer? Here are our Summer Reading Requirements for 2017!
A final note, or request: the Archives don’t have enough of these lists – none at all, for example, from Williston Academy in the 1960s. If by any chance you’ve hung on to copies (or to academic or other documents of any kind), they would be welcome additions to our collection. If you have memorabilia you’d like to share, please let us know: email@example.com Thank you!
4 thoughts on “Summer Reading”
What a great article! My hats off to you Mr. Teller. Now, which one will you be reading?
I have read many of those books including the French ones, mostly at Williston I think. I hated the list then but now it seems like a good idea! Thanks Rick,
Very entertaining to read these lists of book recommendations from bygone days. Checking myself, I noted that of the 26 books recommended to Williston seniors in the 1941 list, I’ve only cracked open 7. But I did find some “balm in Gilead”: when I glanced at Ms. Cantarella’s English IV list from 1959, I realized I’d read every one of her required books, and so I felt redeemed!
Interesting article Rick. Now if I could just find my old lists from the 60s, I could check to make sure I read some on the lists. Good to have talked with you during the last reunion.