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.
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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.
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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.
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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.