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Summer reading

21 December 2021 - Dr Jan Orman

One of the highlights of the pre-Christmas season for me has always been the bookshop Christmas catalogue. Whether it’s the all-bells-and-whistles glossy version from the big bookstores, the black and white A4 sheet from my local independent bookshop or an emailed version from one of the many lists I subscribe to, I pore over them knowing that there is only a very small chance that I will get to read even a small fraction of the books that attract me.

Why do we have “summer reading”?

Here in Australia the idea of “summer reading” is great, summer coinciding as it does with the gifting opportunities of Christmas and for many, a long lazy holiday break. For lots of people it’s the only time of year they can even think about opening a book for pleasure.  But the concept of Summer Reading is an American one, begun in the 1890s as an educational program to occupy school children in the summer holidays. That suddenly makes it sound like a lot less fun!

Why do we (I) like to read?

There are so many other things to do and so many new ways to absorb stories and information but there’s something very special about reading, that we diehard readers just can’t do without.

As a child and later as an adolescent, I was a bit “on the outer”. We moved a lot and as a result I had no longstanding friendships. I had elderly parents, no TV (would you believe!) and was not good at sport (a social death sentence in Australian schools). I read to learn how to be.

Story, absorbed through whatever medium can be therapeutic, but reading allows you to make personal adjustments to characters and places. Having those same characters and places presented to you on a screen through the eyes of a cinematographer, a director and a casting director, doesn’t allow those important adjustments which add meaning to the experience for the reader.

In the past I read to understand the world, but I also began to understand myself. Reading also  allowed me to expand my very narrow range of experience and prepare myself, at a safe distance, for emotions and situations I might one day encounter. It allowed me to understand that I was not alone in the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. When things were very difficult, I could be somebody else entirely, living vicariously through the characters in whatever book I was reading. If you are a reader too, you will probably already know what I mean.

I’m still reading.

More recently I realise I’ve been reading differently. What’s helping me most is history. Most of what we are experiencing now has happened before and human beings have found a way to survive. Pestilence, political chicanery, war, global financial disaster, famine, human dislocation – it’s all just normal in the broader context of history. Reading and learning about the past has somehow become soothing in the present.

Right now, I’m reading “The Delusions of Crowds – Why People Go Mad in Groups” by William J Bernstein. It may sound dry but it’s fascinating. It’s strangely reassuring to know that economic disasters and end-times conspiracies have been happening forever!

The only thing that I can’t find any solace about in the history books, is climate change.


If you are interested in the idea of reading to help with life’s ups and downs (and I’m not talking about self-help books) I’d like to recommend you read “Reading the Seasons – Books Holding Life and Friendship Together”. It’s written by two Australian bibliotherapists, Germaine Leece and Sonya Tsakalakis and traces their growing friendship through their letters, in which they share personal thoughts about the books they are reading. They also describe their clients and the “reading lists” that they have prescribed for them. Every letter opens the way to a new piece of therapeutic reading and at the back the recommendations are all listed according to the needs they are likely to meet.

What will be in my stocking on Christmas Day?

This year, like every year, there is a glossy summer reading catalogue on the coffee table at my house with numerous books circled in red – little hints to passers-by about what they can buy me for Christmas. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this is a good year.

I hope you get to enjoy some good summer-holiday reading as well.

 Further reading

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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