Teen Read Week is this week, October 7-13, and it is desperately needed.
Thirty-three percent of 13-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than 1-2 times per year (commonsensemedia.org). These are scary statistics, and this lack of extracurricular reading robs teens not only of valuable knowledge and literary skills but also of different points of view and the ideas of humanity’s greatest minds.
The aggregate of our knowledge and stories is contained in books. From thence it has been transferred to the internet, and now much can be learned from a simple Google search.
But being educated and informed requires more than just the memorization and regurgitation of facts; one must also be familiar with the great works of people who came before them.
In most cases, the direct thoughts of these writers have been recorded in books (or at least some form of written text). Therefore, reading the works themselves, rather than summaries or descriptions from textbooks, is often the best way of learning about and understanding the authors’ ideas and stories. However, many teens will never fully appreciate Shakespeare or most poetry because reading these is viewed as a chore, a task to be accomplished and forgotten about, rather than a privilege and an opportunity to better understand the human experience.
And it’s not just how little they read; it’s what teens are reading or, rather, what they aren’t. A study of 963,678 students in the UK found that “Secondary school students tend to read books which are also read by upper primary students. That suggests that secondary school students are not challenging themselves enough” (Topping).
My mother taught my siblings and me to read in preschool and kindergarten, and this has given me a huge advantage throughout my academic career because I have been reading more challenging books than my friends.
Of course, it’s perfectly ok to read easier books sometimes, but if you never try to read anything more difficult or out of your comfort zone, then you won’t grow or learn about new perspectives. The “Classics” are classic for a reason: they’re good, or at least note-worthy. They address important issues that are still relevant today and document history, and they should be taught in schools and read by teens with that in mind. Treating them like dragons to be slain or lands to be conquered only makes something which should be pleasant painful.
Is it not amazing that someone who lived and died hundreds or even thousands of years ago can speak directly in your head, and you can hear them? It sounds like science fiction, but that is what books allow you to experience. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic” [Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)].
I fear that my generation is losing the ability to practice this magic effectively. Perhaps we have already lost it.
I’ve heard it said that our youth is our future. What, I ask you, might this future look like without the questions posed by Plato or Socrates, a future bereft of the social critiques of Austen and Dickens? Difficult books challenge readers to think critically; without them, I believe our future would very grim indeed.