First of all, David, we call them our “kids,” not “teen-agers.” Yes, some of us may be parents apart from being teachers, but the “us” I’m referring to in this case is their teachers. Yes, we are the “most maligned and ignored professionals in American life.” So it’s interesting to me that you also chose to ignore the people who could have—and likely would have gladly—provided you with insight into what teenagers are actually reading.
You are right in that “The good [teachers] are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest.” So I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong. Teens read seriously. They read for purpose. They read for ideas. They read for knowledge. But most importantly, THEY READ.
I teach Advanced Placement Language and Literature in Denver. I’ve taught the former class for three years, and I am privileged to co-teach AP Literature this year, and will probably teach it solo next year. In AP Lit, we’ve read the following books so far this school year:
- Everything I Never Told You
- The Bluest Eye
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- A Thousand Splendid Suns
- The Awakening
Up next is Silko’s Ceremony, and after that, August Wilson’s Fences. In my AP Language class (which is focused mainly on nonfiction), we read Life of Pi and The Things They Carried (because, quite frankly, I could no longer handle a year of teaching just nonfiction).
“So what?” you may say. “It’s because they’re in an advanced class,” you may say. Well, despite the evidence you didn’t specifically cite in your essay, I can tell you for a fact my kids are reading “serious” texts (as well as maybe some not-quite-so-serious ones), because of the inter-textual connections they make not only among the “serious” works we read in class, but also among the works they read in class and those they read outside of class.
I am curious, by the way, how much time you’ve spent talking to “teen-agers” in recent years, and where those teenagers are, and where they go to school. My students, who are decidedly living in poverty and fighting against various factors—including the fact that some of the schools in my district, including mine, don’t have a librarian—that could determine their paths for them, choose to read these serious texts; they see the truth of the humanity in books, the reflection of the odds stacked against them in their own lives, and they see life represented realistically. Also—and this may shock you—a great many of my kids read for pleasure outside of school. Some of them even take advantage of downtime (what little there is of it) in class to pop open a book and read. I see this and it warms my heart and it gives me hope for the future.
Also, you’re wrong about the iPhone connection, too. My kids actually are more intellectually curious and more interested in finding new things to read precisely because of stories they see “scraps” of somewhere or somehow online. They know I love books and have contact with authors. They ask me which books they should read next based on their interests. A student of mine who is interested in being a probation officer wanted to read books about the legal process. Now, forgive me for not suggesting The Brothers Karamazov, but I know some developed, intellectual adults who can’t get through the lengthy arguments in that novel. I did, however, suggest John Grisham, because his novels do provide a somewhat realistic depiction of our current legal system, and because…wait for it…she will still be reading instead of not reading.
The irony of your essay is that the “Golden Age of Teen Reading” is actually now. There are more authors working to write books targeted to young audiences, to get them reading, to get them set on the path to lifetime literacy. The bonus of this path to lifetime literacy is it opens the door to increased intellectual curiosity. Find a “Q&A” with any YA author online, and you will often find young adults asking authors who or what their inspiration was for a storyline or character. Very often, it’s someone or something from mythology, or history, or even a frequently repeated literary trope. This door opened by YA authors is one many people choose to walk through on their way to lifetime literacy and curiosity. It’s a good thing. It happens.
Books are, and always have been, a gateway to knowledge and intellectual curiosity and a way to develop ourselves as empathetic human beings. Ultimately, reading books does encourage us to develop understanding of and for the experiences of other human beings. You even said, “literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable.”
So why should anyone judge what type of books or literature teens—or people of any age—are reading?
*NB: This is in response to a column Denby wrote for the New Yorker on the 23rd of February. No, I’m not going to link to it, because it’s the latest in a series of columns written by people—mostly out of touch with teenagers and education, mind you—in which they shake fist and curse at sky about whether or not teens read “seriously.”
*Second NB: If you want ACTUAL data about what kids are reading, you can read this awesome post that includes statistics by Book Riot’s Jeff O’Neal.