Line of children at library recalls summer book list


It was reassuring to see a line of children at the Central Enoch Pratt Free Library's circulation desk one day last week.

Each one had a stack of books, mostly fiction, that had all the earmarks of a summer reading list.

The visit to the Pratt was encouraging on several counts. I'm glad to see that schools can get children to open a book during July and August.

It was also a pleasure to look out over the huge Pratt building and see it so fastidiously clean, orderly and well-stocked. And the fact that a librarian produced an obscure, long-out-of-print 1933 murder mystery for me in about three minutes made the visit even more pleasurable.

Visiting the main Pratt hall, so little altered by time, recalled so many Baltimore summers when my schools sent out notices requiring or recommending books to be consumed when regular classes were not in session. I think the basic quota was six books a summer.

My mother usually let out a cry of annoyance when the letter with the reading list arrived. She had six children spanning nine years. And because each grade's reading list was different, she had to obtain, supervise and manage as many as 36 different library books.

My mother was not opposed to reading. At all times, she had a pack of Lucky Strikes (strictly unfiltered) and a new crime mystery thriller at her side. It was the times when she had to make sure her six charges had their heads buried in books from the summer reading lists that things got a little tense.

Mom sought an escape clause when the reading list arrived. The mimeographed lists contained books such as "The Guns of Navarone" or "Gods, Graves and Scholars." She wrinkled her nose and said, "Not my idea of a good time."

There was always a last line in the letter that said other books may be substituted if recommended by a professional librarian. Here was the loophole, the way out of locating the titles so many other school-age children were supposed to compete for.

There was an ironclad rule in the house that if a Pratt librarian said a book was worthwhile, it must have something going for it. Leave "The Guns of Navarone" for the ninnies who manned the school libraries.

I can recall one day my mother ushered a good number of the Kelly tribe to the neighborhood branch in the 2500 block of St. Paul St.

Then as now, it was a fairly sleepy place in the warm weather months, but it was an inviting little Victorian bandbox stuffed with books encased in plastic covers. It always smelled of floor wax.

Many of the librarians looked as if they too enjoyed a Lucky Strike and an Agatha Christie novel.

If Mom were organized, she pulled a few of these recommended reading lists from her handbag and disdainfully handed them to the Pratt lady.

"I know you won't have any of these books, but it says you can recommend others," my mother would announce, adding with a wink, "Recommend."

It was like getting outfitted for school uniforms. The librarian went up and down the shelves. She'd pull books we'd never heard of. "The Guns of Navarone" was nowhere in sight. "Gods, Graves and Scholars" was a dead issue.

Sometimes we had so many books we piled them in a wicker baby carriage for the trip back up Guilford Avenue.

If the trip had its comic moments, the time when we got around to the actual reading was serious. It was also some of the best hours of long Baltimore summers. At age eight, I never wanted "Stuart Little" and "Charlotte's Web" to end.

On the other hand, I watched in sheer amazement as my sister Ellen plowed through "Robinson Crusoe" and some very thick volumes of Charles Dickens. Now there was a dedicated reader.

As we got older and into high school, the fun was drained out of vacation reading. The teachers became more inhibited by the prospects of the College Board tests. You were forced to read certain books, such as "Babbitt," by novelist Sinclair Lewis.

The choice aspect vanished in this literary dictatorship. One sharp Jesuit teacher I had devised a Willa Cather pop quiz administered on the second day of class in September. How cruel.

The best summer reading is not chained to a quiz or a fill-in-the-dots standardized test. The best summer reading comes by browsing through the shelves of the local library or maybe asking the person behind the desk, "Can you recommend a good book?"

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