Curmudgeons the world over are frequently heard to remark that kids these days don’t read enough. Their senses dulled by Wii and Facebook, goes the refrain, youngsters can’t handle the pressure of exercising their imaginations and creating pictures in their minds. Kids are reading less than ever before, and the written word is done for.
(These doomsday reports, by the way, are contrary to empirical proof. Studies show that kids are reading at least as much as their parents did at the same age, and according to some statistics, even more.)
So when a book comes along that becomes hugely – and in some cases inexplicably – popular with youngsters, said curmudgeons jump for joy. I spent three years working in an indie bookstore with a sizeable children’s section, and when I got into discussions with parents about the teen book phenomenon du jour, I often heard, “Well, it might not be Shakespeare, but at least it gets them reading.” No matter how damaging the messages, no matter how poor the writing, it seems that parents were just happy to see their teen sitting and reading for a while.
What is about the act of reading, in and of itself, that makes it inherently positive? Is it really better for a young girl to read the Gossip Girl series than, say, updating her blog? Or hanging out with her friends? Or even watching TV? In other words, why are parents happy to see their kids reading Gossip Girl when many of them wouldn’t be too keen on them watching the show?
Gossip Girl is just one example among many. There’s the massive media juggernaut Twilight and its various sequels, of course, and Lauren Conrad’s new memoir-oops-I-mean-novel LA Candy, as well as the Clique series. Certainly there’s no question that these books have garnered a massive audience of teen readers, some of whom wouldn’t normally pick up a book. The question on my mind is, is that a wholly positive thing?
We’re so accustomed to seeing books as intellectually stimulating throwbacks to a simpler time that it’s easy to forget that book publishing is a business just like any other. And just like TV, movies, and advertising, books send messages that can be damaging. Take Twilight, whose crimes against feminism are well-documented: Edward Cullen is a sparkly-skinned stalker who controls and manipulates his tasty, tasty lover, and yet the message isn’t to stay away from guys like that, but to view them as true gentlemen. I’m not so sure that that kind of reading is so much better than whacking a tennis ball around with a Wii remote, to be honest.
Granted, teens are a lot smarter and more media-savvy than we give them credit for, which is what our spring 2009 release She’s Shameless: Women write about rocking out, growing up and fighting back is all about. And I’m definitely not saying that every teen girl who reads Gossip Girl is going to absorb every self-esteem-harming message contained therein without any nuanced criticism of their own. But I think it might be time to take a closer look at our cultural book-worship. Books aren’t neutral. And I may be betraying my four years in the bookselling and publishing world by saying this, but they aren’t always better than the alternative. A book about hot, rich, white young people on the Upper East Side is really just a TV show with words, if you ask me.
But at least it gets kids reading. Right?