Bernard Malamud

A Summer’s Reading

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A Summer’s Reading Summary

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American author Bernard Malamud’s short story “A Summer’s Reading” (1956) tells the story of nineteen-year-old George Stoyonovich, who lives with his father and sister in an impoverished, immigrant neighborhood in New York. Despite the dynamism and diversity of the city, George feels isolated, in part due to the death of his mother and his dropping out of high school. Unable to find the compassion and guidance he craves, he turns inwards, becoming almost hermetic, spending his time in his room or at the nearby public park. There, he ruminates on his lost opportunities and the seeming impossibility of achieving the American Dream. Ultimately, George finds a mentor and rediscovers himself in the constructive act of reading. Through the figure of George, the short story comments on the unique emotional challenges faced by immigrant communities in America.

The story describes George’s situation: quitting school impulsively at sixteen, he has stayed with his father and sister, Sophie, for the past three years. Unable to hold a decent job, he anticipates reaching his twentieth birthday without finding gainful employment. He devises an array of excuses for not improving his situation that are all grounded in a vague sense of hopelessness; for example, he refuses to go to summer school or night school because he believes the experience will either patronize or humiliate him. Sophie comes home from her cafeteria job with bundles of newspapers and magazines, which George reads in conjunction with the World Almanac.

One night, while George wanders the city, dreaming of getting a house, a job, and a girlfriend, he encounters a neighborhood man, Mr. Cattanzara, who works in the subway station. George has fond childhood memories of Mr. Cattanzara but is ashamed when Mr. Cattanzara asks him what he is doing with his life. He lies, saying that he is spending the summer diligently reading a list of one hundred books in order to educate himself. Impressed, Mr. Cattanzara invites George to tell him about his readings when he finishes, then says farewell.

In the following days, he notices that his neighbors begin to treat him more respectfully. He realizes that everyone, including Sophie and his father, has learned about his reading endeavor. Sophie gives him a book allowance, with which he buys books but rarely reads. Still, his reputation boosts his morale. In the following weeks, he takes better care of his family’s apartment and develops friendlier relationships with the locals. He encounters Mr. Cattanzara only once, trying to avoid him thereafter, fearing he will somehow discover that he barely reads. His guilt pushes him further from reading than before; he even stops reading the papers Sophie brings back from work.

One night, Cattanzara drunkenly encounters George. Just as he did when George was a child, he offers him five cents to buy a lemon ice. George explains that he is an adult, but Cattanzara, replying that he is still a child, asks him to name a single book he has read during the summer. George fails to name a book, and Cattanzara cautions him not to repeat his own failures. The following night, when Sophie asks George where he keeps his books, he infers that Cattanzara has revealed his bluff to the neighborhood. Sophie angrily retracts his book allowance and tells him to work for himself. Over the next week, George barely leaves his room, ignoring Sophie and their father as they try to compel him to get some fresh air. One night, he finally goes into the neighborhood again. He discovers that his neighbors still hold him in good regard and that Cattanzara kept his bluff a secret. His confidence quickly regenerates itself; moreover, he hears another rumor that he has finished all one hundred books. He deduces that Cattanzara has spread the new rumor. The story ends one evening that fall: George goes to the library, picks out one hundred books, and sits down to start reading.

“A Summer’s Reading” demonstrates that perceived reputation is just as important as real achievement in boosting the confidence and fostering the overall happiness of disadvantaged people. Moreover, it suggests that confidence and happiness can be precursors to success in the social world.