How to Confront a Generation That Doesn’t Like Books?

Is it a problem that teenagers read more social media than books?

I have never understood when people say that they don’t like to read. Do you not like stories or something? Do you hate being transported into a different set of life circumstances other than your own? Do you not appreciate the simultaneous familiarity and discomfort of following a set of characters through adventure or adversity? What do you talk about with your friends? How do you start conversations with strangers?

Despite the fact that my brain asks these questions with an escalating sense of desperate urgency, I am obligated to keep them to myself. They’re a little condescending if not flat-out rude.

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In a piece this year for The New Yorker, David Denby points out that teenagers, while perhaps not reading as many paper-and-ink books, might actually be reading more than ever. He suggests that they read in snippets and snatches—text messages, tweets, ads, etc. The Usain Bolts of reading, they prefer sprint events like tweeting over endurance events like books.

My first reaction is to find this somewhat troubling, to complain or to give in to the urge to say something prefaced by “Kids these days…” whilst wagging my finger imperiously.

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You see, Denby makes a strong case for the book; he advocates for the importance of books within children’s, especially teenagers’, lives—that the book is something that we must, as a society and as educators, not forget to make a priority. I don’t disagree. In fact, when I hear a child of any age express an aversion to reading, I feel viscerally sad. How can somebody hate that which has brought me so much joy?

Should we rethink our approach to book-haters?

 I wonder, though, if it is valuable to rethink, at least to an extent, the way we approach book-haters and reevaluate what we consider to be so valuable about the book. Books, after all, are a relatively recent construction. Do we value the stories books tell? Is it the germ that causes the book to be written, that creative drive, that we want to impart to students? Is it the skills required to read a book (the patience, the comprehension, the interpretive and analytical skills) that make books such a critical part of our institutions of education? Or is it the physicality of the book itself, the physical manifestation of learning and imparting knowledge that we value? Maybe it is all these things. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Reading books not only becomes a chore, it becomes an act so loaded with expectations and obligations that it there is little pleasure in it.

Indeed, Denby’s insistence that we ought to prioritize books, to “turn off the screens,” also ignores the value of the broader world of texts that teenagers do spend their time willingly reading. Their text messages and tweets and statuses are not empty. They are brief, but they participate in the formation of a larger web (no pun intended) of communication. Communication via text messages and social media generates a kind of text that is always changing shape and switching directions. There is no authoritative text because authority is shared.

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Perhaps instead of trying to convince teenagers to pick up a book and read it for leisure, we should be concentrating on how to make connections between the instant electronic texts that saturate their world and the books we so badly want them to engage with. We need to stop believing that Twitter is full of drivel and instead place value in the kinds of communication and reading that teenagers use in their lives. If we can deconstruct the wall between classroom and real life, even make an academic study out of instant communication, perhaps students and educators alike will see that the line between different kinds of texts, whether tweet or novel, is not so impermeable. Teenagers are reading, and the fact that they are not reading what most of us would consider standard texts (i.e. books), suggests that we need to reconsider what it means to read and what we value about the act of reading, lest we alienate an entire generation of readers.

Kids get their stories from more than just books.

Kids these days are getting their stories from more than just pages in books. Books engage many skills and are practically limitlessly valuable, and I will defend them even in death (somehow). But our priority cannot be to get kids to “turn off the screens” — and not just because it sounds and is curmudgeonly. Consuming and understanding other forms of stories, like those in video games, board games, movies, television, comic books, live action or online roleplaying, social media, blogging and even sports engage with different and equally valuable skills as reading books. If your kid isn’t reading books, that doesn’t necessarily make them a bad reader. By all means, encourage your kid to read, but let’s also stop lamenting a generation of readers supposedly reading fewer books, and instead celebrate a generation of readers engaging in a wider and more diverse range of texts.

*Wags finger imperiously.*