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Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

25 February 2016

From The New Yorker:

A common sight in malls, in pizza parlors, in Starbucks, and wherever else American teens hang out: three or four kids, hooded, gathered around a table, leaning over like monks or druids, their eyes fastened to the smartphones held in front of them. The phones, converging at the center of the table, come close to touching. The teens are making a communion of a sort. Looking at them, you can envy their happiness. You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness—in a superb book or a series of books, in the reading obsession itself! You should probably keep on wishing.

It’s very likely that teen-agers, attached to screens of one sort or another, read more words than they ever have in the past. But they often read scraps, excerpts, articles, parts of articles, messages, pieces of information from everywhere and from nowhere. It’s likely that they are reading fewer books. Yes, millions of kids have read Harry Potter, “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hunger Games,” and other fantasy and dystopian fictions; also vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young-adult novels (ditto), and convulsively exciting street lit. Yet what happens as they move toward adolescence? When they become twelve or thirteen, kids often stop reading seriously. The boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favor and exclusion. Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” has written about the loss of self that this avoidance creates and also of the peculiar boredom paradoxically produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.

If kids are avoiding eye contact, they are avoiding books even more. Work by the Pew Research Center and other outfits have confirmed the testimony of teachers and parents and the evidence of one’s eyes. Few late teen-agers are reading many books. A recent summary of studies cited by Common Sense Media indicates that American teen-agers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. The category of reading “for fun” is itself a little depressing, since it divides reading into duty (for school) and gratification (sitting on a beach towel), as if the two were necessarily opposed. My own observation, after spending a lot of time talking to teen-agers in recent years: reading anything serious has become a chore, like doing the laundry or prepping a meal for a kid brother. Or, if it’s not a chore, it’s just an activity, like swimming or shopping, an activity like any other. It’s not something that runs through the rest of their lives. In sum, reading has lost its privileged status; few kids are ashamed that they’re not doing it much. The notion that you should always have a book going—that notion, which all real readers share, doesn’t flourish in many kids. Often, they look at you blankly when you ask them what they are reading on their own.

. . . .

 Digital culture has enveloped us more quickly and more thoroughly than most of us had imagined. But what can be done about it? Many adults, overwhelmed by a changed reality, shrug off the problem. You don’t want to become a crank. After all, reading technologies have changed in the past; television altered consciousness and social patterns sixty years ago, and kids survived and became adults. Literature will survive, too, somehow. Or so we would like to think. (I’m not so sure: the personal gratification provided by constant feedback doesn’t wither as one gets older.) Some of this indifference may be caused by rueful self-acknowledgment on the part of adults. Many of us are looking at screens all the time, too. Even the book lovers, carrying some tome on an airplane, or listening to an audiobook in the car, turn on their phones as soon as they can.

. . . .

 Novelists, poets, essayists, and university humanists, emerging from their proud corners, find it hard to talk of character, judgment, perceptiveness, wit, empathy, and other such virtues encouraged by serious reading. They are not salesmen, and they don’t want to sound like William Bennett: such things, they believe, should be self-evident. Earlier ages (the Greeks, the Victorians, etc.) were convinced of the improving value of literature, but in the twentieth century the sophisticated position (Wilde, Nabokov, Updike, Vidal) was always that literature improves nothing, does nothing; it creates only delight. Among famous critics and scholars, Harold Bloom, in book after book, has argued for reading as the way to a developed self, but my guess is that he speaks to those who don’t need convincing. If the rest of us give up on book reading without a fight, we will regret it, even be ashamed as the culture hollows out.

. . . .

 The Times reported on Monday that at least fifteen state governments were offering some type of bonus or premium for high-demand STEM degrees. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so,” Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, said. “They’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Books in General

70 Comments to “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?”

  1. “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?”

    Question so, ‘no’ …

    Better question would be ‘has teens ever read seriously?’

    How about housewives?

    Old farts like me?

    YMMV

    • 30 years ago when I was a teen I was a heavy reader, but yeah almost no one else around me was. I think people reimagine the past all the time.

    • Question, so answer is “it depends.”

      Both my teens were and still are voracious readers. Maybe they’re exceptions, but they still do “read seriously.” However, many of their peers didn’t. That may have been the source of Daughter #2’s nickname in high school: KinNERD.

      Like most other questions involving large cohorts of humans, this one has many, many answers.

  2. I believe this my be four hundred and fifty-sixth time I’ve seen this headline, or one similar to it, in my 60 years of life.

  3. “….and get off my lawn!”

  4. Allen F beat me to it: Did teens EVER read ‘seriously’ unless forced? As a teen I read a LOT and I’m an old fart, (and notwithstanding this article many teens read a lot) but even when it was Byron and Shakespeare, as far as I was concerned it was for ‘fun’, that is for the enjoyment of reading.

    Silly article. Really.

    • I read a lot as a teen, but didn’t really read the sorts of books they seem to be referring to…you know…’literature.’

      But I never really saw anyone else reading much of anything at that time either. So I think Allen’s question is better. Unless a book was assigned for a class, most didn’t read “seriously”, whatever that means.

    • Yep. Read David Copperfield in ninth grade, that put me on my Dickens phase. Every time a teacher assigned me a story or novel that I wound up liking, I’d head to the library and read almost everything else that author wrote (unless I grew tired of him/her). So, Dickens phase, Cather phase, Conan Doyle phase (Professor Challenger FTW!), Twain phase, etc., etc.

      But then, I would get about ten to twelve books a month from the Scholastic Book Club while most of my classmates got one or two books. Seems that authors of these articles don’t remember facts like that.

      There are casual readers, and then there’s us.

  5. The category of reading “for fun” is itself a little depressing, since it divides reading into duty (for school) and gratification (sitting on a beach towel), as if the two were necessarily opposed.

    It often is, especially if the teacher doesn’t bring any joy to the assignment, or is assigning a slog. But more to the point, if you wanted to know whether kids are reading or not, you’d have to separate out the required vs. voluntary reading. I don’t see the point of being upset about that distinction.

    He seems to be setting up tech as the enemy: that tech is keeping kids from reading, and that technophiles are falsely elevating STEM. But tech is not the culprit here. Preferring to subsidize engineering instead of wild-eyed crazies — Melissa Click — does not mean you’re against knowledge or literature in general.

    If kids aren’t reading, I’d look to the quality of the books available, first. We’ve seen how badly tradpub misjudges other genres, why would YA be an exception? Since kids prefer print (I think they have to) then by default they’d be reading tradpub, and may not be seeing enough of what they want.

    I also wonder if Pew takes into account Wattpad, since most teenagers wouldn’t have their own Kindle account, and I don’t know if banks allow them to have debit/credit cards. The problem may not be what Denby thinks it is.

    • And fanfiction.net, and all the other sites.

      Also the light novel fan translation sites, and the scanlation sites for unlicensed manga and Korean manwha, and….

  6. Yeah, I’m going to join the voices saying ‘huh’? The author is describing nostalgia for a time that never existed.

  7. I’m not sure this is true. When I was a teenager, I read voraciously, to the point where adults often told me I should get my nose out of a book. A lot of my friends didn’t; they read set books dutifully, plus the odd book that appealed to them.

    I don’t think there was ever a world where all teenagers read a great deal.

  8. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Is it just my imagination, or is this…

    “Yes, millions of kids have read Harry Potter, “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hunger Games,” and other fantasy and dystopian fictions; also vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young-adult novels (ditto), and convulsively exciting street lit.”

    …a bit condescending? I know teens who happily read those. Does that not count as “reading seriously”?

    • More than a little bit.

      I’m sure the author of the OP would be quite distressed that I handed a volume of the Kitty Norville series to my teen son the other night since he’s been on a werewolf kick lately

    • Of course it’s condescending, as it should be. One does not read seriously when reading drek like Harry Potter or that nasty Hobbit thing. Reading seriously is like eating boiled asparagus with your fingers: it is a sign of Superior Breeding and Culture, because no sane person would do it spontaneously and it is therefore a habit that must be learned. The duller a book is, the more perfectly it shows off the reader’s superiority, because nobody would ever read it accidentally for mere pleasure.

      By this device, we shall surely turn literature into the same sort of thing that opera has long since become: a vehicle for pure status-signalling, entirely divorced from any kind of enlightenment or enjoyment. When nobody reads a good book except to show off their own snobbery, nobody will run the risk of being infected by ideas out of books. That great peril to our cultural program will be ended for ever. We don’t want the humans getting ideas above themselves; or, for that matter, any ideas at all.

      (signed)
      H. Smiggy McStudge

      • I’m with you until you criticize opera. Opera is a fun and amazing form of entertainment that was long thought of as low-brow and deeply scandalous. There are operas from the turn of the century where the lead soprano gets naked on stage (Richard Strauss’ Salome). Mozart’s operas are filled with enough sex and violence that they’d have to get a R rating today (Don Giovanni opens with an attempted rape immediately followed by a murder, and it’s a comedy). The costumes, the sets, the singing–it’s amazing!

        I’m a youngish person, and I love the opera and go as often as I can afford.

        • If you follow the link in the McStudge’s comment above, you’ll find that he actually agrees with you. The trouble (from our point of view), or the good thing (from his), is that in most of the English-speaking world, opera has been turned into a playground for snobs who don’t appreciate the art form, while driving out all the riff-raff who would actually enjoy it if they could afford to go. Meanwhile, the talent that used to compose and perform new operas has migrated to other media, mostly film, where they can still reach a mass audience. It is McStudge’s fondest wish for all art forms to be turned into museum pieces in this way.

          • I have to admit that I am one of those low-brows who detests opera. Just not my thing.

            But I happily pay for the tickets for the spouse and one daughter to attend – they do enjoy it (and it is not a “major” company, so you don’t get the “elites” there so much).

            Interesting thing is, I believe the last one they managed to get to was Salome. Now, if the lead still did the full strip on stage, they might have talked the low-brow into joining them…

  9. Funny thing about those STEM folks… Every single one I know reads voraciously. Includingvreading works of history, religion, philosophy, political theory, sociology, anthropology and other *shudder* non-STEM topics. For fun. Not everybody has to major in English Lit to enjoy literature.

    • I was an English lit major, but my smartest friend in college was an aerospace engineering major who loved literature and humanities classes.

  10. It doesn’t seem to have even crossed the writer’s mind that the teens might be reading books on their phones. I have no idea if they are or not, but the writer begins by noting how often one sees teens looking at the screens of smartphones and bemoaning how that means they aren’t reading books.

    • Well, of course. They obviously aren’t reading books on their phones, because they can’t smell the paper. To make things worse, they probably bought those non-books from Amazon. Shocking!

      (signed)
      H. Smiggy McStudge

  11. I love The New Yorker, but I hate this type of “kids are going to hell in a handbasket” kind of article.

    First, I read on my phone all the time. I’m not a teen, but I’m willing to bet some of them figured it out.

    Second, cut teens some slack. Their time is so scheduled now and they have a LOT of homework in competitive schools.

    Third, I have an almost pre-teen and she and her friends read ALL THE TIME. They swap books. They read books on sleep-overs. They are incredibly into reading, and I don’t think that’s likely to just stop completely. (In terms of “seriousness,” she just read the Usborne Illustrated Shakespeare and was so excited by it.)

    Fourth, I was some book convention a couple years ago, and there were teenagers who were basically author and book groupies (minus the sleeping around). They were so into books and authors, and it was like One Direction was appearing when they got to talk to authors. One thing that was interesting was they didn’t care at all if someone was self-published. They just cared about the books, and didn’t seem to view it in any way as “lesser,” unlike the publishing industry.

  12. My own teens have stacks of books they would like to read but the high school workload has become so crushing that they do not have time. Though I will add, when they do have a spare hour, they turn first to video games, not books. Books are a luxury for summer vacation.

  13. there are many kids who read, but the people at the new yorker dont live in those cultures apparently, of homeschooling, serious schools like Montessori and others in which reading is a way of life, a way of knowing.

    I wonder if there is a c idea opposite of the very real ‘ageism’ that ought be called ‘kidism’… deleterious ideas about an entire class based on– age.

  14. Before starting high school, my niece was always reading fiction of her choosing but she doesn’t have time now to “read for pleasure.” The only fiction she reads is assigned in her English AP class.

    Those darn kids.

  15. My favorite daughter reads a lot, but mostly on WATTPAD and always on her phone. Does she read print books? Rarely. She’s bought 10 in the past year and read them all, but prefers reading on her phone.

    I’ve hooked her up with the kindle app, but she’s more interested in WATTPAD right now and does read daily.

    Does she read serious literary works? Well, if you consider ‘Larry’ stories literary, LoL.

    P.S. if you don’t ‘ship Larry’ my favorite daughter won’t talk to you. 🙂

  16. I have never known a summer reading program to create an avid reader where there wasn’t one before. (We just did it for the free personal pizza; we were going to read that many books regardless.)

    Ditto with teacher-assigned books, and turn-off-the-tv parental scolding, and New Yorker hand-wringing articles. None of this will create new generations of readers. There is only one thing that has ever done that: a really, really good story. So good that all your friends are talking about it and you cannot wait to dive into the next one.

    Neither the New Yorker, nor the school teacher, nor the Big 5 can create that. It’s up to AUTHORS. Like it has always been.

    What if instead of one Harry Potter per generation, there were several each year because the gatekeepers were no longer in charge of slowing things down and limiting who gets to read what?

  17. Man: You know nothing of culture. You “find it hard to talk of character, judgment, perceptiveness, wit, empathy, and other such virtues.”

    Teen: “Dude, yeah. I mean, like, it’s hard. We’ve been arguing about who did unreliable-narrator better for talking about mental health, Mr. Robot or Jessica Jones? Who knew abuse can make you crazy?
    And we were arguing at lunch about which was a better novel-to-screen story, The Martian or Man in the High Castle? Wasn’t “Man” a cool exploration of human nature? My friends were talking about what we’d do if it happened here. That’s what fascism might be like, right? The film version went beyond what the story did that way, making it seem real.
    Yeah, I know the original writing is important, but look, you don’t believe GRRM can finish GoT better than the team of script writers, right? We’re past that, don’t you think? The themes and characters are deeper now, especially for motivation. But you’re never sympathetic with most of the characters, because that’s different from empathy, right? Like, I understand why they wanted to kill Jon Snow, but it still wasn’t a righteous act.

    Man: I know not of which you speak. But my elite sense of cultural literacy is better than yours. I’m sure.

    • +1.

      Though I would have gone with the more succinct “… you don’t believe GRRM can finish GoT, right?”

      • OK, I’ll go with that — if you’re willing to have “succinct” and “GRRM” in the same sentence.

        And I swear I didn’t click twice, so it’s Mr Robot who caused this repetition here.

  18. Man: You know nothing of culture. You “find it hard to talk of character, judgment, perceptiveness, wit, empathy, and other such virtues.”

    Teen: “Dude, yeah. I mean, like, it’s hard. We’ve been arguing about who did unreliable-narrator better for talking about mental health, Mr. Robot or Jessica Jones? Who knew abuse can make you crazy?
    And we were arguing at lunch about which was a better novel-to-screen story, The Martian or Man in the High Castle? Wasn’t “Man” a cool exploration of human nature? My friends were talking about what we’d do if it happened here. That’s what fascism might be like, right? The film version went beyond what the story did that way, making it seem real.
    Yeah, I know the original writing is important, but look, you don’t believe GRRM can finish GoT better than the team of script writers, right? We’re past that, don’t you think? The themes and characters are deeper now, especially for motivation. But you’re never sympathetic with most of the characters, because that’s different from empathy, right? Like, I understand why they wanted to kill Jon Snow, but it still wasn’t a righteous act.

    Man: I know not of which you speak. But my elite sense of cultural literacy is better than yours. I’m sure.

  19. I have a teen, and yes, she reads seriously–whatever that means. She loves to read and got a new bookshelf for Christmas. It’s full now and she needs another bookshelf already. 🙁

    She follows ‘booktubers’ on youtube. They review books, mostly YA and NA, it seems, and so she always has new books she wants to get. Every single day she takes a book to school with her and reads it between classes or in study hall when she’s done with her homework. She’s has loads of friends who all love to read too, so I can’t believe they are some freak island of literacy in the middle of the country.

    She ties in a lot of her other interests into her reading. She LOVES the musical Hamilton, and so right now, she’s been reading the biography of Hamilton that inspired the musical. Not exactly light reading! She doesn’t read that one every day, but intersperses it between her other books.

  20. Reading isn’t something most people do for fun now, except for a minority of the population. More people turn on the TV or their streaming service instead.

  21. Why aren’t teens listening to bards and storytellers any more?

  22. “It’s likely that they are reading fewer books.”

    Hmm? Citation, please. Where did this assertion come from? If kids were reading more and better books… would you know?

    This entire essay is built on this one assumption. And if there are citations for it, I will make my own assumption and say that it more than likely comes from other articles making the same assumption, or vague study reports (not the studies themselves) that generalize data to suit the writer’s agenda which dismisses today’s version of the Beat Poets and creative revolutionaries that all the hipsters of yesteryear read.

    But… oh. They’re not really interested in WHAT they’re reading. It’s actually all about HOW they are reading — on their phones, not on paper.

    Yeah. I think it’s quite possible Kids Today are not reading paper seriously at all any more.

    • Hmm? Citation, please. Where did this assertion come from? If kids were reading more and better books… would you know?

      If that wasn’t the case then the folks signalling to each other that they are superior because they read would have no standing. It’s an axiom for them.

  23. Business leaders have repeatedly said they want to hire people who can think and judge, follow complicated instructions, understand fellow-workers, stand up and talk in a meeting.

    Agree. That’s why people look for mechanical engineers who can think, judge, follow complicated instructions, and speak intelligently. Among mechanical engineers, those qualities are easy to find.

  24. I thought last month’s meme was teens were flocking back to print after rejecting ebooks. So did they go back to print and then stop reading?

    Or do coloring books explain it?

  25. A**hat!!!

    How does this annoy me? Let me count the ways.

    1) ” …The boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favor and exclusion …” – this is insulting and inaccurate!

    2) “… you should always have a book going …which all real readers share …” – Oh, they ‘should’ should they?

    3) And this whole paragraph “… Novelists, poets, essayists … be ashamed as the culture hollows out. …” What over-bloated, self-indulgent, clap-trap!

    I read frivolously, passionately,intently, all the time at that age, and so did my friends … nothing’s changed today. They’re still reading

  26. If we’re going to bring up Greeks and Victorian –
    Has the writer of this piece come across Socrates opinion on books and reading? He thought it was terrible for culture.
    And perhaps he has heard the term bluestocking? A degratory word for women who read a lot? Since Victorians considered this reading undesirable.
    Teenagers should really be applauded for adopting Greek and Victorian values and avoiding reading.

  27. I have five sons and they all read – or are reading seriously as teens. Two are writers and two more dabble in writing. They just have to get past the boring BS labeled “classics” that most schools give them to read and find their own literary interests. And yes, science fiction, fantasy and other so-called genre fiction qualifies as serious literature. As a matter of fact, those genres contain some of the most lively work being done out there now.

  28. Question in the headline, so the answer is ‘no’.

    I propose an alternate question: Do teens read anymore? Yeah, some do, not all, and the world owes gratitude to J K Rowling for getting millions of teens to read.

    That’s what we want: teens who have the habit of reading. That will serve them well later on.

    When I volunteered at a youth shelter, the teens there did not have time for ‘serious’ reading. They were too busy dealing with dysfunctional family issues. Flaubert could go frell himself.

    Yes, Virginia, there are stupid questions and stupid questioners.

    ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath,but a harsh word stirs up anger.’ –Proverbs 15:1 (I still haven’t got the hang of that.)

    ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: . . .
    A time to kill, and a time to heal;’ –Ecclesiastes 3:1,3 (Yeah, that’s more my style.)

  29. I think you are going to see lots of new platforms rethink the user experience behind reading.

  30. Teenagers are always going to hell in a hand basket, have been since hand baskets were invented. They own the future, we don’t. We can fume, but they still own it. Is reading dead? I pray not. But if it is, it is. Tie your shoes tight and move on.

    • such a great, well writ comment

      • . . . Children no longer respect their parents.

        It is easy for folks to be deluded into thinking that their experience, beliefs and feelings are universal. I know some who believe their misconceptions are universal truths. Others are inclined to speak as if they are going to be around forever.

        When people spend the whole day on Facebook and don’t go to work anymore, I might be long dead, so why should I be worried?

        PS: If you are a freelance writer who wants to be published, you write stuff the editors will publish. Whether it’s nonsense or not is a separate issue.

  31. Last I heard studies, actual studies not pundits pontificating, showed that millennials were the biggest readers since the silents of the 1950s. More than boomers, more than my generation the Xers. More than any generation since TVs became commonplace.

  32. As best I can tell, reading popular fiction among the young seems to be an overwhelmingly female activity. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to find that teen girls read quite a bit, but that teen boys on average do very little in the way of reading for pleasure. I’d certainly love to be proven wrong in terms of what I’m anecdotally seeing, but I’ve seen nothing on this topic either way.

  33. It’s amusing that you’ve got one group bemoaning technology because previous (supposedly) kids were all reading voraciously, at the same time there’s another group bemoaning tech because previously (supposedly) kids were all playing outside.

    I wish they’d make up their minds which non-existent nostalgic past is being ruined.

  34. Smart Debut Author

    So glad I don’t live in New York.

    It would suck seeing stuff like this in the NY media every day and knowing the rest of the USA is reading it, too, and laughing at me.

    • The real question in the title that we’re all trying to ignore is:

      Does The New Yorker and Other New York Publications Bother to do any Research at all before Wasting Perfectly Good Paper and Ink?

  35. Only 900 teenagers ever actually read at all. This is the number I derived by using the ever-dependable Whale Math (TM).

  36. No – teens read *srsly*

  37. I read a lot of things as a teen, including National Lampoon, which summed this phenomenon up in a 1978 cover.

  38. For any article with a title in the form of

    Does X [group of people] [do] Y [activity] seriously anymore?

    we can be sure that the author will answer no and the evidence presented will be thin, but the opinion will be strong.

  39. I think you misspelled srsly in the title.

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