I don’t have the words to express how weary I am of articles like David Denby’s recent piece for Lithub, “We Are At Risk of Losing Serious Readers.” Not only is the article a retread of every other article about how the kids aren’t reading or aren’t reading enough or aren’t reading the right thing in the right format, but there is nothing new. To sum up the piece: if the kids don’t read like me, then literary culture is doomed.
In response to Denby, I’d like to make a few points:
- Format doesn’t matter. The essential act of reading is translating little symbols—made of ink or pixels or of sounds—into a story in the readers’ mind. To argue that one format is better than another is pointless and snobbish.
- Genre doesn’t matter. Judging the quality of a work is entirely subjective. The reason so many genres exist is because there are so many readers in the world. There are great stories and terrible stories in every genre. We all like different things and to argue that one genre is better than another is also pointless and snobbish.
- The canon doesn’t matter. While there are works that we should all read if only to understand references to them in conversation (who doesn’t love a good white whale joke?), the canon is a highly problematic list. It was stuffed with dead white dudes for so long. It’s only in the last decade or so that academics have started discussing the overlooked women and people of color. To argue that the books one read in college should be on the syllabi of the next generation is, to a certain extent, pointless and snobbish, too.
Denby has further points about the importance of a liberal education in his article that I don’t have any particular problems with aside from the fact that he needs to cite some sources to back up his assertions. But this is a different argument entirely.
Articles like Denby’s have been appearing for years—decades, really—but they’ve all proved alarmist. Kids are reading. Period. Nothing else matters. Readers are still being made and finding through own way through the written world. Moreover, forcing young readers to read the way people like Denby think they ought to read is a killing frost to a budding love of reading.