Nobody told me that Feb. 22 through 29 had been designated as “Panic About the Teens Week,” though I guess it’s so obvious what’s going on that an announcement isn’t required. First, Knopf published Nancy Jo Sales’s alarmist book “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.” Now, the New Yorker’s David Denby has filed a grumpy, rambling lament about the decline of reading in teenagers: “Reading has lost its privileged status; few kids are ashamed that they’re not doing it much,” Denby writes. “The notion that you should always have a book going—that notion, which all real readers share, doesn’t flourish in many kids. Often, they look at you blankly when you ask them what they are reading on their own.”
Denby’s lament is laced with so many caveats that it’s as if he knows he doesn’t have much of an argument in the first place. “I know perfectly well that there was never a Golden Age of Teen Reading,” he acknowledges at one point. Adults are equally to blame, Denby admits at another, writing that “Many of us are looking at screens all the time, too.”
But if Denby genuinely believes that the decline in reading threatens the health of American democracy — “Could a country that had widely read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second?” he asks — and that the decline in reading among teenagers represents a particular crisis, it’s probably worth sourcing that crisis to factors more concrete than a general befuddlement at Kids These Days. And if he wants to make the argument that teenagers should read for pleasure, he probably has to do more than lament the choices they’re already making.
Denby acknowledges that there are things other than the glare of the iPhone that might be the reason students read less: “Of course, these kids are very busy. School, homework, sports, jobs, clothes, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, games, texting, Instagramming)—compared with all of that, reading a book is a weak, petulant claimant on their time,” he writes.
And these are not casual claims on crumbs of students’ time. As Allie Bidwell wrote in U.S. News & World Report in 2014, one survey suggests that high school students — the teenagers Denby worries are giving up reading — are assigned up to 17.5 hours of homework each week. If students are doing it all, that’s up from an average of 6.8 hours per week in 2011. In 1994, the National Center for Education Statistics noted that “the percentage of students who reported doing at least 1 hour of homework daily was 16 percent at age 9, 37 percent at age 13, and 39 percent at age 17.”
Denby isn’t wrong that teenagers are reading less. The data back him up there and suggest that adults are reading less, too. In 2011, 79 percent of Americans said they read a book in any format in the preceding year, while by 2015, that number was down to 72 percent. But if teenagers have switched from books to social media missives, maybe that shift in taste is driven by the contraction in their time. It’s all well and good to lament the fact that fewer teenagers are falling into reading torpors, but they can read in a serious and sustained way only if there’s continuous space in their schedules that allows them to do that in the first place.
Denby ponders how children learn to love reading, writing airily that “Infants held in their parents’ arms, told stories, and read to will not remember the images or the words, but they will likely remember the warmth and comfort associated with books and conversation, especially when the experience is repeated hundreds of times. The luckiest of the children fall out of parents’ arms into preschool. In the good ones, books are read aloud, valued, expounded, held up for kids to enjoy.” And indeed, the same Common Sense Media research summary Denby seems to be citing suggests that the time parents are spending reading to their young children declined between 1999 and 2013. So if teenagers are reading less, perhaps it’s also fair to consider whether their parents have done less to teach them about the pleasures of getting lost in a good book.
Adults aren’t exactly modeling reading behavior, either. A 2014 brief from the Pew Research Center suggests that 16- and 17-year-olds actually read more than adults, in part because school requires them to do so. Forty-six percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they read books “every day or almost every day,” compared with 43 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds, and 40 percent of all people 30 and older. The median number of books 16- and 17-year-olds said they had read in the previous year was eight; among people 30 and older, that number was five.
So, what is to be done? Denby pins his hopes on teachers, suggesting that “The good ones are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest. They can’t be; the children’s lives are right before them.” But this all has a vegetable air to it, reading as a moral imperative that must be handed down for the good of the republic. If Denby started out intending to make the case that teenagers should read for pleasure, he meanders badly off the mark.
Instead, why not champion the teenagers who do identify as readers: the 16- and 17-year-olds who are reading a median number of 10 books per year; the eager young attendees at Book Con that NPR’s Linda Holmes deemed the Book Girls in 2014; the Nerdfighters mobilized by young adult novelist John Green and his brother, Hank? Like the teenage girls Nancy Jo Sales interviewed who are fighting back against harassment with humor and friendship, the heroic teenage readers Denby longs for are actually all around him.