A central theme of “A Summer’s Reading” is George’s lack of self-confidence and self-respect. Early in the story, Bernard Malamud says that George believes that teachers do not respect him, but the one who really does not respect him is himself. He is so ashamed about quitting high school on an impulse that he hesitates to hunt for jobs, feels dissatisfied with the jobs he gets, avoids his old friends, and does not date the neighborhood girls. He is so uncomfortable in his neighborhood that he seeks escape in a park blocks away from where he lives. His lack of self-confidence and self-respect also keeps him from returning to school, going to night school, or even beginning to read the hundred books.
By telling people that George is reading one hundred books, Mr. Cattanzara helps create a sense of self-confidence and a feeling of self-worth in George. He enjoys being respected by his sister, his father, and the people in his neighborhood. When Cattanzara discovers that George is doing no reading, he helps George even more by cautioning him not to make the same mistake that he made, and by not telling anyone that George is not reading. George thinks that Cattanzara is the one who has spread the rumor that George has finished the hundred books, a rumor that enables him to save his pride and feeling of self-worth and eventually enables him to begin reading. With the support of Cattanzara and of the neighborhood, George learns that it is all right for him not only to dream of a better future but to try to make that dream come true.
The story also emphasizes the importance of an education and of reading. George is uncomfortable with formal education, but Malamud indicates that the alternative of independent reading is available. At first, George feels unable to take advantage of that possibility, but at the end of the story, he begins to work on advancing his education.