Here on the internet, it’s nothing new to see complaints about the reading habits of teenagers. If the media isn’t fuming about how teens don’t read (so not true!), they’re all up in arms about how teens do read, but they’re only reading werewolf romance novels (also not true, but what’s wrong with liking your supernatural love affairs with big teeth and a lot of body hair? CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE, JERKS).
Oh, and god forbid one of you picks up a contemporary book about serious issues: that’s when someone writes a plaintive essay about how YA literature has gotten too dark, and why can’t you guys do something more wholesome, like learning to play the harpsichord. (Never mind that when they were teenagers, most of the people writing these essays were hiding in their closets leaving sweat stains all over the pages of a well-thumbed copy of Flowers in the Attic. Yes, they were.)
But the latest diatribe about what high school students should or shouldn’t be reading is one we’ve never seen before: over at Bookforum, one writer has decided that teenagers shouldn’t be reading novels, period, because they’re too young and inexperienced to understand the greats of literary fiction. (Warning, young grasshoppers: the opening paragraph of this essay contains—gasp!—the D-word.) After reminiscing about how much she just didn’t get or appreciate books by Hemingway, the Brontës, Steinbeck, and so on when assigned to read them in high school, the author writes:
Just maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers. Maybe there is a better format and genre to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner. Thankfully this genre exists: It’s called non-fiction.
Whoa there, them’s fighting words. Don’t get us wrong: we certainly love a good nonfiction book, especially if it involves sharks. Or Jack the Ripper. Or a shark named Jack the Ripper. (Don’t tell us this isn’t real. IT COULD TOTALLY BE REAL.) But we also loved reading novels in high school! But just because it’s hard for contemporary teens to identify with, say, the jaded mid-century wartime feels of Ernest Hemingway (and let’s be honest, *cough* some people *cough* never really enjoy reading Hemingway even as grownups), and just because this lady couldn’t engage with some of what she was reading in school, does that mean that all high school students are biologically incapable of appreciating all novels, forever? Could this be a sign that schools need to expand their list of assigned books to include authors like Toni Morrison, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, even Stephen King, who write captivating novels even if they’re not yet 100-year-old “classics”? What say ye, Sparklers?
Would you want to stop reading novels in your lit classes? Have you ever been assigned a book in school that you totally loved?