It’s my favorite time of year – back to school!
Wandering the aisles of Staples last night with my 16-year-old daughter, I observed that while many things have changed in the age of technology, some things have remained the same. For now anyway, my daughter still needs post-it notes and pens, notebooks and folders – and for now anyway, she seems to still like them.
It’s reading books she doesn’t like the way she used to – and based on Hannah Natanson’s “Yes, Teens are Texting and Using Social Media Instead of Reading Books,” my daughter is not alone. When she sits on her bed scrolling through her phone or watching a show on her laptop instead of picking up any of the books I bought her to read this summer – some of the best, including Atonement, The Color Purple, Americanah, Invisible Cities – she’s aligned with her generation.
Natanson’s article features the work of psychologist Jean M. Twenge, author of the provocatively titled iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and what that means for the rest of us). Twenge found that, whereas in the 1970s 60% of high school seniors reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper, in 2016, that number was more like 15%. In fact, seniors in high school reported consuming digital media for 6 hours of their free time every day. I didn’t know they had 6 hours of free time a day – but if they do, and are using it to game, snap, and watch, that’s significant.
My mother, a retired English professor, bravely dove into a conversation with her grandchildren about the topic this summer, and it didn’t go very well. The argument that reading books and news is important and good for people got her nowhere with the under-20 set, who immediately became upset. They said they felt criticized for something they feel they’ve been both taught and encouraged to do, in school and in society: participate in a social and digital world. They’re right.
What to do, if anything? Daniel Willingham, psychology professor at UVA and author of Raising Kids Who Read, recommends specific steps for adults to take that might encourage kids to read, including leaving books lying around, allowing them to read graphic novels, and showing them how useful reading is. That got me thinking. If post-its, new pens and crisp folders are still fun for my teenager to pick up, purchase and use, what is it about them that makes them that way – necessary, nice-looking, and easy to add in to a busy life? Could books be more like that?
And then I thought, no. It’s not about what books are good for, or how they look. It’s about the act of reading.
And then I thought, no, that’s not it either. Maybe it’s about being quietly engaged with another person’s words. It’s about listening, it’s about hearing. If reading isn’t a strength, a person can listen to audio books or a podcast or watch videos of authors reading. The point is to take in the words of someone else, and with those words and other words, develop thoughts of your own. It’s about synthesis, about that mysterious but ecstatic experience of braiding ideas and words together into something new and wholly your own.
The good news: every bookstore and library I have visited in recent weeks and months has been packed with people of all ages. They weren’t all reading books – but they were all engaging with something or someone, and they were choosing to do that in a well-lit, shared space amid the aisles – among words spoken, printed, online, bound and unbound.