The most shaming moment of my youth occurred on the ruffled clay courts of the neighborhood tennis club. One hot July morning, after I had “participated” in an entire practice without hitting a single backhand, my coach informed me that I had an ambition problem: if I didn’t start trying to hit the ball, she would have no choice but to stop trying to teach me. Understandably, she expected me to be embarrassed, but instead at that moment I achieved what I thought to be the impossible ace. But there was no pride in my impressive rebuttal. It became clear that no part of me wanted to waste my summer covered in clay, running drills, and carrying around a silly racket. Unlike my friends who were tempted by the prospect of cute coaches and mixed doubles, I abandoned my athletic prospects and dedicated my summer to literary possibilities.
Too absorbed in books to return to the courts, I never corrected my coach’s accusation of my wanting ambition—at just under five feet tall, I had willingly embraced the Napoleon Complex. Instead, I buried myself in my room and read for endless periods of time. There were days when the only contact I had with the outside world was the breeze traveling through the window to rustle the pages of my Rushdie masterpiece. Any new friends I made were librarians who smiled at my thirst for the written word. Visits to family cottages meant whispers from well-meaning aunts who thought I should play outside more often. Why didn’t I find myself a nice boyfriend?
In truth, my strongest summer flings were established with my favorite novels. As for many other girls, the beautiful story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy became idealized in my teenage heart. Emma became my heroine and Tess of the D’Urbervilles died along with my summer innocence. In my later teen years, a tiny part of me might have fallen for a young, autobiographical Bill Clinton.
So, this summer, like every other, has commenced with this tradition of literary pursuits. Surrounded by bookshelves, I am forced to contemplate the decisions of summers passed. Were there books read—or rather flings established—that were mistakes? In my memory, some books rest on a glorified, yet historically based, throne of accomplishment that is perhaps undeserved. With these books, namely those that have made my thefacebook.com list of favorites, I have established what are clearly not just flings but long-term relationships.
One afternoon in the car, as I philosophized with my tennis-star younger sister, I revealed my deep love for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I confided that part of me was afraid to reread both of these books. Rereading could cause me to realize that I am not nearly as attracted to these books now as I was when I first grew to love them. With the knowledge that the books have not changed, discovering that they had become less appealing would be heartbreaking—it would mean that I was now different from my teenage summer-self. My sister merely laughed and suggested I join Deepak Chopra in the market for overwhelming life lessons in book form.
Any other book lover, though, will understand the intimate connection between the individual and the story. It was upsetting to recently read Harry Potter and find myself less enthralled by the magic of Hogwarts, but reassuring to discover of late that Mr. Darcy remains his charming self. If anyone understands the power books have over me, it is my father. He would return home from work on hot summer days to find me covered in blankets after having finished another epic. Thus, in one last effort to make me an athlete, my father bought me a book that fateful summer I abandoned the racket: The Zen of Tennis. Still resting on my bookshelf, it is one of those books that never managed to enter my summer fling radar.
Neesha M. Rao ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House. She is spending the summer working at the Halifax Daily News and finishing her gigantic reading list.