While strolling through my local Barnes & Noble earlier last month, a recurring question popped into my head: What, if anything, are teens reading these days?
Now here you might be thinking, Well, don’t you know? Aren’t you a teen?
As a matter of fact, yes I am. But I don’t consider myself the average teen reader. As proof, I sit at my desk typing this while staring at a stack of, not four…not eight, but 13 young adult books that I have bought in the past four months and have yet to read.
So no, as a certified bookaholic I probably don’t represent the majority of teens. But, I digress.
I fear that reading is a dying pastime among youth. Too often I find my peers casually chuckling at the idea of reading for (gasp!) fun. For many, it seems to have become a foreign concept.
Whereas in elementary school, the biyearly school book fairs were relatively happenin’ spots, (was it just me?), the high school book fairs are all but ghost towns. “American teens are less likely to read ‘for fun’ at seventeen than at thirteen,” noted an article in the New Yorker magazine, citing a study by Common Sense Media.
I didn’t need a statistic to tell me this.
So, I took to the hallways at Long Beach Polytechnic High School to ask students if they enjoy reading books, and when they last read a book for non-academic purposes. To my surprise, the responses I received were overwhelmingly positive.
Many students, like senior Ranani Ferguson and sophomore Chantera Walton are reading series that have become T.V. shows, such as The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, which also has a film based on it. The story follows Clary Fray’s search for her missing mother, a search that leads her into an alternate New York called Downworld that’s filled with mysterious faeries and other mystical creatures.
I was definitely impressed by the last thing senior Joline Chang read, the infamous self-help book Who Moved My Cheese by businessman Spencer John. The book guides people going through change. “It just all ties in with [my] personal and work life,” Chang explained, “I can use it when I’m working with a team and for…reaching goals.”
Among the readers I interviewed, I noticed a common driving force behind their yearning for the written word; escape and identity. I can relate to both.
Personally, reading is one of the most exciting, relaxing, and rewarding things I do. When I need to take my mind off things, I read. When I’m bored and feel like a thriller, I read! When I want someone to relate to, when I want to learn something new, when I wish to gain some experience without moving an inch — I READ! In fact, I can’t imagine my life without it.
“I like reading [books] that make me feel like I’m in a different world,” senior Jerijah Moore noted. Walton, on the other hand, wants to be able to see herself in the book she’s reading. “I usually read fiction and teen stuff I can relate to,” she said.
Elaina Miskiel, a junior, agreed. “I like reading those cheesy teen romance books,” she smiled, and then added, “and also those Harry Potter, Percy Jackson ones too!”
Still, there are those like junior Vanessa Ortiz, who said she can’t remember the last time, if ever, she read a book for leisurely purposes. “It just doesn’t interest me,” Ortiz shrugged, “I get bored, and I don’t understand [books].”
I admit, my heart broke a bit when she said this. According to Common Sense Media, only 45 percent of teens report reading once or twice a year. That’s depressing.
I already know the argument around this generation, which says that because of technology today’s teens “can’t hold a conversation,” etc, etc. But I wonder, how much of my peers’ rejection of books has to do more with how reading is taught than with technology. Think about it, nearly every book we read throughout middle and high school are a) written by old white men, and b) revolve around a concept a little too sophisticated or overly dramatic (yes, there’s such a thing) for teenagers.
On top of that, most of these books require some interpretation our teachers were taught in college that we STUDENTS are somehow just supposed to know AND UNDERSTAND.
Then, to make matters worse, we have to write an essay or take a test on our knowledge of these so called “literary treasures” that we once again, can’t identify with and didn’t choose to read ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall ever thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ve been through something like this!” when Pip went to Mrs. Havisham’s house to discover her creepy wedding day memoriam in Great Expectations! And though slightly entertained, I’ve never once seen myself as Daisy in The Great Gatsby or Abigail Williams in The Crucible.
As mentioned, assigning books instead of providing students a choice may be part of the problem. A recent study on 12 to 18 year olds found that “student self-selection of reading materials leads to greater pleasure and interest in reading,” mentioning also how students become more dissatisfied with assigned reading as grade levels go up.
Could this be where we are losing mass interest in reading? If youth associate reading with un-relatable topics, adult interpretations, and testing, it’s no wonder some might have a hard time pairing the words ‘books’ and ‘fun’ together.
The follow up question is: how else do we get more youth reading in their free time? And instead of blaming technology, we might start by looking to the classroom for some answers.