These Kids Today!

A prominent critic worries about college students' extracurricular reading. But Scott McLemee wonders about the best-seller lists....

March 18, 2009

At the National Book Critics Circle awards event last Thursday, I had the pleasure of presenting this year’s Balakian citation for excellence in book reviewing to Ron Charles, the weekly fiction critic for The Washington Post -- and once, in a previous incarnation, an assistant professor of English at Principia College. He has been a finalist for the award several times, displaying great patience with NBCC as we’ve climbed the learning curve. His acceptance speech was, by acclaim, the highlight of the evening.

But to judge by the blog chatter, the high point of Ron’s public impact actually came earlier this month, when his essay on the extracurricular reading habits of college students appeared. Citing recent best sellers reported from campus bookstores, he noted that you found nothing even vaguely akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the poetry of Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg. Instead, there were novels about wizardry and adolescent vampire romance.

“The only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, the choice of a million splendid book clubs. Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment. ... In the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today?”

As much as I like its author, some aspects of this complaint strike me as problematic. In general, of course, Ron Charles is pointing to a real phenomenon, a tendency towards juvenilization that seems all-pervasive at times. His observations call to mind Andrew Calcutt’s Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Castells), an insightful book from the late 1990s that still seems quite on-target.

To suppose that things were really that much better in decades past, though, may be the historical equivalent of an optical illusion. I don't know whether anyone was tracking campus bookstore sales in the 1950s or '60s. If so, the record would probably show Peyton Place and Happiness is a Warm Puppy doing pretty well – and Diana diPrima's poetry, or Herbert Marcuse's social criticism, not so much. When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981, my first roommate was quite devoted to Jonathan Livingston Seagull while the rest of my dorm was trying to imitate Hunter S. Thompson (in lifestyle, not prose style). The number of young people reading anything serious at any given time tends to be pretty small.

Via e-mail, I ran some of these thoughts by Ron -- who answered with good humor that he’d “just [been] giving a twist to the Old Man rant about Young People Nowadays,” after all.

“The presence of a few numbers and stats gave my essay the gloss of a piece of sociology that it doesn't really deserve,” he says. “I couldn't find much data about what college kids were reading in the '50s and '60s, and even the data available today are far more suspect than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, Follett and Barnes & Noble control a huge portion of the college bookstore market, so what's promoted on college campuses is far more homogenized and commercialized than in earlier decades. Also, many of the reporting college bookstores serve their communities at large, so there's no way to tell what's really being bought by college students and what's being bought by the professors' own young children or just people who happen to live near the university.”

Much of the discussion generated by his article has ignored such questions and gone directly to the argument that Ron Charles is a conservative dinosaur who must have been a teenager circa World War Two.

Either that, or he lives on a commune in Vermont where he went into hiding during the Nixon years and wrote his essay out of disappointment that he can’t recruit kids to the Weather Underground. (Possibly both.) Actually he is in his 40s, lives in a suburb, and has the demeanor of someone who sat out the Culture Wars as a conscientious objector.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he told me, “by the number of respondents who felt I wanted college students to start reading the works of Abbie Hoffman and other '60s and '70s writers. Or that I was complaining that they weren't reading more Serious Literature. That wasn't really my point: I was actually disappointed that they weren't reading more age-appropriate material: not stuff for middle schoolers and not stuff for adults, but all the kinds of crazy, wild, naïve, in-your-face, big-think literature that young people should be reading during that magical moment between high school and the first soul-crushing job.”

Usually, he says, adults complain that “college students are too wild and irresponsible; I wanted to claim that their reading habits imply that they aren't nearly wild or irresponsible enough: mostly books borrowed from the Young Adult shelf and their parents' book clubs. Where's the real college lit?”

A fair question -- but one that I suspect cannot be answered with marketing survey data. As the late John Leonard put it, the work of a writer is “experienced by the reader as a competing solitude. It’s not communal. It’s intimacy to intimacy, one on one, down there with the demons.” (Or seagulls, as the case may be.)

Last year, as a Christmas present, I gave a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 to an old friend. But his daughter got to the book first, reading its nine hundred pages in a weekend marathon and promptly drawing connections to the work of Ernst Jünger. She is fourteen.

I am not prepared to make any generalizations about the Younger Generation on the basis of this small data set. But there are moments when gloom doesn’t seem completely appropriate.


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