A Summer's Reading

by Bernard Malamud

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

Because George Stoyonovich left school on an impulse when he was sixteen, he has been through a string of unsatisfying jobs. Now he is almost twenty years old and unemployed. He does not go to summer school because he feels that the other students will be too young. He does not go to night school because he does not want the teachers to tell him what to do. Instead, he stays in his room most of the day, sometimes cleaning the apartment, which is located over a butcher store. His father is poor, and his sister Sophie earns little, so George has little money to spend.

Sophie, who works in a cafeteria in the Bronx, brings home magazines and newspapers that have been left on tables. George sometimes reads them along with old copies of the World Almanac that he owns. He has begun to dislike fictional stories, which now get on his nerves. At night, he roams the streets, avoiding his old friends and seeking relief in a small park that is blocks beyond his neighborhood, where no one will recognize him. In the park, he thinks of the disappointing jobs that he has held and dreams of the life he would like to lead: He wants a good job, a house of his own, some extra money, and a girlfriend. Around midnight, he wanders back to his own neighborhood.

On one of his night walks, George meets Mr. Cattanzara, a man who lives in the neighborhood and works in a change booth in a subway station. George likes Cattanzara because he sometimes gave George a nickel for lemon ice when George was a child. Cattanzara sometimes comes home drunk, but on this night, he is sober. He asks George what he is doing with himself, and George, ashamed to admit the truth, says he is staying home and reading to further his education. He then claims he has a list of approximately one hundred books that he is going to read during the summer. George feels strange and a little unhappy about what he has said, but he wants Cattanzara’s respect. After commenting that a hundred books is a big load for one summer, Cattanzara invites George to talk with him about some of the books when George finishes reading them, and then walks on.

After that night, George notices that people in the neighborhood start showing respect for him and telling him what a good boy he is. His father and Sophie also seem to have found out about the reading. Sophie starts giving him an extra dollar allowance each week. With the extra money, George occasionally buys paperback books, but reads none of them.

George starts cleaning the apartment daily. He spends his nights walking through the neighborhood, enjoying his newfound respect. His mood is better. He talks to Cattanzara only once during the next few weeks; although the man asks George nothing about the books, George feels uneasy. He starts avoiding Cattanzara, once even crossing the street to keep from walking by him as he sits in front of his house, reading The New York Times from cover to cover. On that occasion, Cattanzara shows no sign that he is aware of George’s presence. George stops reading entirely, even neglecting the newspapers and magazines that Sophie brings home.

One night, Cattanzara, obviously drunk, approaches George. He walks silently past George but then calls George’s name. He offers George a nickel to buy some lemon ice. When George tries to explain that he is grown-up now, Cattanzara argues that he is not. He challenges George to name one book he has read that summer. When George cannot, Cattanzara tells George not to do what he did, then walks on.

The next night, Sophie asks George where he keeps the books he is reading because she sees only a few trashy books in his room. When George cannot answer, she says she will no longer give him the extra dollar, calls him a bum, and tells him to get a job.

George stays in his room for almost a week, in spite of the sweltering weather and the pleas of Sophie and his father. One night, he goes out into the neighborhood and discovers that the people there still show him respect; Cattanzara has not told anyone that George is not reading. George feels his confidence slowly coming back to him. He learns that the rumor has gone through the neighborhood that he has finished reading all the books, and wonders whether Cattanzara has started the rumor.

One fall evening, George leaves the apartment and runs to the library. After counting off a hundred books, he sits down at a table to read.

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