Recently, while on an airplane, I picked up a copy of Princeton Alumni Weekly, which had been left in the seat pocket by a previous traveler. Since I’d brought a Kindle to read on the plane but was not allowed to have it on during takeoff, I flipped through the magazine to pass the time. One article quickly caught my attention—What Princeton students are reading: An undergrad’s search for the book of her generation by Angela Wu.
“When I was twelve,” she began, “I was that sort of voracious reader who ran up against the public library’s 40-book borrowing limit every week. Reading meant one thing: disappearing into Green Gables or some post-nuclear society as soon as I got home and emerging only in time for dinner.” But now that she was in college, Angela went on, reading for pleasure (as opposed to assigned reading done with highlighter in hand) was “less common, and a lot more complicated.” One student she interviewed asked for the definition of “reading for fun.” Many said they read articles online but didn’t commit to books because they didn’t have the time.
“Here’s how I read,” Angela went on. “My homepage is the website of The New York Times. I open my browser several times a day, and I read a few articles each time. I read screenplays, essays, and blogs about fashion, food, economics, technology, and journalism. I check my Facebook and Twitter feeds and my Tumblr dashboard multiple times a day. There I might find a link to a magazine feature about squid jigging (how you catch the slippery cephalopod), which will lead me to a Wikipedia article on giant squid, and eventually to a news article about thousands of Humboldt squid washing up on the beaches of San Clemente.”
Clearly, the pressure of schoolwork and other activities leaves little time for pleasure reading. I remember this from my own college days, how deeply I missed those private hours immersed in a fictional world. But it seems there’s more going on than the busyness of the college years. “While we haven’t lost the desire to read,” another student said, “the cultural center of our generation has shifted away from books, toward social media, Hollywood, and TV.”
The “What They’re Reading on College Campuses” column in The Chronicle of Higher Education “fizzled out last spring,” Angela writes, “after tracking college students’ reading habits for four decades — a reflection both of the fragmented nature of our reading choices and of changes in the bookselling business.”
But when they do read, what are their choices? Classics, as you might expect (though, “I’m not reading Proust because I want to know whether Swann’s romance works out,” one cynical student said. “I’m reading it because it’s Proust, and it looks good on my coffee table.”) They read contemporary literary fiction, such as Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
But they’re also reading young adult fiction like The Hunger Games and the Twilight series. “You’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg,” Angela quotes Washington Post book critic Ron Charles. “Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls . . . Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay?”
“I sometimes think we never escape the 13-year-old reader we were,” Angela quotes author and creative writing professor Chang-rae Lee. “That’s when everything forms — passion, knowledge, a certain sense of aesthetic, direction, an affinity begins to form. And maybe it’s also the time when we’re most open. We all have a primal moment of reading, where we read something and the world explodes, and it’s brighter and all that.”
“That is the moment to which students try to return, again and again,” Angela says in closing. “We can engage with current events and big ideas online. When it comes to literature, we love the books that remind us what it’s like to love reading.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about this, long after I put the magazine away and went back to my kindle. The world of books and publishing is changing rapidly, no doubt about it. How and what readers read is changing too. So what does that mean for those of us who write for children and young adults? According to Don Troop, who wrote the column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A piece of advice to would-be authors: If you want your books to appeal to the college crowd, aim low.”
I beg to disagree. I think writers of books for young readers are teaching them to love the act of reading—taking them to places they’ve never been, giving them new experiences, opening their eyes to countless new ideas. If college and post-college readers are distracted by countless other forms of content—as clearly they are—then we have to aim higher, not lower. We must give them books that are fresh and new, that make their spirits soar, that they can’t wait to share with their friends. We can compete with sneezing panda and the latest polling results. We just need to write books that remind young adults “what it’s like to love reading.”
For the complete article by Angela Wu, go to the Princeton Alumni Weekly online at http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2012/01/18/pages/1490/index.xml?page=1&.