The most recent panic in the long history of anxiety over how much young people read – and what exactly they are reading – focused on the results of a survey published to coincide with World Book Day last week. This survey suggested that teenagers are rejecting challenging books in favour of easy reads, with teenage boys, in particular, more likely to choose books that are several years below their reading age. In other words, kids well into their time at secondary school are still reading books more suited for those in the primary classroom.
These findings are not surprising. Nor is it a shock to find the research being used as yet another excuse to demonise teenage boys. But teachers and librarians need to question their role in promoting a view of reading that has placed the complexity and merit of teenagers’ book choices beyond discussion. The current orthodoxy is that in an age of myriad screen-based distractions, we should be pleased children are choosing to read at all. It’s assumed that criticising personal book choices, or overly steering children in the direction of some texts rather than others, will put them off reading altogether.
Projects such as Opening the Book, which works with libraries and schools, push for a ‘reader-centred’ not ‘book-centred’ approach to guiding young people’s reading. Opening the Book claims ‘the best book in the world is quite simply the one you like best’, and ‘it’s not the quality of the book that matters, it’s the quality of the reading experience’. So when kids gravitate towards easy and familiar books instead of trying something more complex, they’re patronisingly told by adults that the best books are just the ones they enjoy the reading.
One problem with this reader-centred approach is that it quite deliberately devalues literature, and gives books a mere bit-part in the ‘reading experience’. By ‘starting with the reader’ and ‘selling the sizzle and not the sausage’, as Opening the Book deliciously sums up its objectives, books themselves become irrelevant. Indeed, for most children and their harassed parents, World Book Day is far more about donning a fancy-dress costume than it is about reading or discussing books. Ironically, given the stated objectives of the campaign, when books are de-centred in this way, there’s no longer anything special about reading; it’s just one pleasure among others competing for the attention of teenagers. Attempts to promote reading as a superior experience, in the absence of discussing actual books, turn it into a quasi-therapeutic, meditative activity which is unlikely to inspire teenage boys to turn off Call of Duty.
Today’s teenagers are presented with the message that reading should be fun, and that if they don’t like a book it’s fine to reject it in favour of one they’ll enjoy. When teenagers do exactly this, and choose to read books that are immediately accessible and offer an easy source of satisfaction, it seems unfair to then berate them for dumbing down. In reality, reading is a complex pleasure. The delight from literature can come from the beauty of the language and images the author creates; from being transported through your imagination into another place and time; from emotional identification with characters and their plight; from being made to feel uncomfortable, sad or scared; or from just feeling gripped by a story with a fantastic plot. Not all of these pleasures are immediately accessible. Some are acquired and require readers to persevere, something children may initially need to be coaxed and cajoled to do. Sometimes the pleasure doesn’t come from the immediate experience of reading at all, but from thoughts that linger long after the book has been finished.