Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

  • 2016-03-02
  • The New Yorker

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.