Brow Beat

The New Yorker Essay About How Kids Don’t Read Takes the “Get Off My Lawn” Genre to Dark New Depths

A screen-obsessed young person helps destroy the moral and intellectual fabric of society.

On Wednesday the New Yorker published a piece of cultural commentary mourning that kids these days no longer “read seriously.” Go to any mall or Starbucks or pizza parlor, urged David Denby, 72, and observe the teens huddled, entranced, around a ziggurat of smartphones in the center of the table. The Screen God has killed the Book God. Come adolescence, Denby writes, and “the boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favor and exclusion.”

Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! 

What does eye contact have to do with novels? Ah, it appears that, fleeing human connection, lost to their reductive gender-specific pastimes of sports and, um, friends, teen hyphen agers (The teen hyphen ager! In the pizza parlor! With the smart phone!) have murdered reading.

But soft—no one is dead yet, not even you, geriatric Cassandra. Nor are the teen hyphen agers brain-dead, though they “look at you blankly when you ask them what they are reading on their own.” They may not share “the notion that you should always have a book going”—which apparently animates all “real readers,” except for the ones who are glued to the words on their phones, which are not real words—but they may yet be capable of “character, judgment, perceptiveness, wit, empathy, and other such virtues.”

This piece is a red cape fluttering in Twitter’s bull-ring. From its blinkered definition of “serious reading” (everything that is not what today’s kids are consuming in record numbers, such as dystopian fiction) to its positioning of tech as the enemy of “beauty and moral complexity,” it has done what Denby probably thought was impossible: demonstrated that “apathetic,” “narcissistic” millennials and their allies do have a pulse, do read the New Yorker, and do, if you prick them, bleed responses like:

But questions of tone aside (“If you ever wondered what a cardigan sweater with a pocket full of hard candies would type if it could,” tweeted one dissenter), what troubled me about Denby’s elegy for all that is good and pure in the world is its lack of old-fashioned evidence. Did the writer talk to any teenagers about their reading habits? Did he bother to think through any of the survey results he cited? “Reading frustrates their smartphone sense of being everywhere at once,” Denby speculates, of adolescents, before trotting out the lone adolescent quote in the piece, a laughably unserious quip overheard from a student in New Haven: “Books smell like old people.”

In fact, the data around reading trends is ambiguous. A 2014 Pew survey found that the number of Americans who do not read at all has nearly tripled since 1978, from 8 percent to 23 percent. On the bright side, that means that 77 percent of Americans—an ample majority—do read. What’s more, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann has pointed out, men and women enrolled in college are especially likely to become page-turning adults, which bodes well in a society where higher education is on the rise.*

How does book reading actually break down among the generations? Well, a Bureau of Labor Statistics time use survey does suggest that young people read fewer minutes per weekend day than the over-75 set (not Denby, quite). But on the other hand, per a 2014 Gallup poll, 80 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 29) have read a book in the past 12 months, compared with 69 percent of those 65 and older, like Denby.

Let’s say the essay is correct to suggest that young people—particularly high schoolers—read fewer books than older people. What we don’t know is whether it’s always been thus. Did kids in the 1970s and ‘80s really subscribe en masse to the idea that one should always have a novel going? Or were they too busy chain-smoking and watching TV? “I know perfectly well that there was never a Golden Age of Teen Reading,” admits Denby, before plunging right back into his Declinist ravings about our hollowed-out culture and attenuated sense of self.

Of course, Denby’s cause here is not just reading; it’s serious reading. Consider the list of literary greats he name-checks: “Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut.” “Vampire romance” and Harry Potter, notably written by alive women, need not apply. Every time an older white man bravely stands up for the classical canon, recall that the romance, fantasy, and YA genres tend to welcome disproportionate numbers of minority writers and readers. And just like in the 19th century, when Hawthorne condemned fiction as the province of “that damned mob of scribbling women,” a genre’s friendliness to outsiders can have an inverse relationship with its prestige. 

Something to contemplate as you struggle to get that old-person smell out of your New Yorker app.

*Correction, Feb. 25: This post originally misspelled Jordan Weissmann’s last name.