Friday, January 2, 2015

The Young and the Readerless

Today's Daily Circuit Friday roundtable asked, why are fewer teens reading fiction for pleasure? The participants were a YA author, a publisher, and a 15-year-old high school student.

It's a great conversation, particularly because it's not mostly about why teens are reading less. The panelists immediately begin discussing the age-old tradition of panicking about "kids these days" and end up on the general problems of our culture and its approach to secondary and higher education.

I particularly loved the comment about how college applications focus exclusively on documented activity. No points are given for having read all of the novels of Agatha Christie, for instance. And how when a book is assigned in school, the experience of reading it is destroyed by requiring a page of notes on each chapter or writing answers to dismal questions as you go. Having a discussion about it is good, even writing a paper about it -- but the constant requirement to churn out a product to prove you read it kills the pleasure, especially if you're first getting started with novels.

I found it fascinating that the host, Kerri Miller, hated Animal Farm when she read it in high school, while the author, Carrie Mesrobian, hated Huckleberry Finn. My reaction was, How can you hate Animal Farm? I wasn't forced to read in school but recently listened to during a car trip. On the other hand, I have to acknowledge, guiltily, that I have never managed to read Huckleberry Finn. If it had been assigned in high school, I'm not sure how I would have felt about it. I know I should give it another try.

I generally never wanted to read anything recommended to me or that my sisters were reading. It's probably related to being the third child with two super-readers ahead of me. In fact, I didn't start reading for pleasure until late in 5th grade, and my reading speed lags my sisters' to this day because of it, I'm convinced. When I did start, it was by reading what would have been considered the graphic novels of the day: juvenile science fiction (Hugh Walters' "English lads in space" series and Robert Silverberg in particular, such as Time of the Great Freeze, Three Survived, and Conquerors from the Darkness).

Watching the young adult in my life, Daughter Number Three-Point-One, I see that she reads for pleasure but that it seems to be hard for her to give enough time so that she catches the momentum of the story. She says she feels like she can't read for more than a half-hour or forty-five minutes without stopping (while I can sit and read most fiction for several hours at a time, arising in a daze that so much time has passed).

We discuss reading speeds; she thinks that if she could read faster, it would be easier to get immersed. I always respond that you only get more speed by reading more. I think she's finding that I'm right about that in the past few years, as she has been reading more for college courses.

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