Making Reading Something Bigger

The burdens and freedoms of summer reading lists probably play a role in a common memory — trudging through Of Mice and Men in the car on trips while eagerly bringing Stephen King’s The Stand poolside. (The specific books, of course, will differ.) If the limited goal for the summer is to encourage reading — simply reading — then popular, current books are an understandable concession even in lieu of the classics during the months of July and August.
I wonder if the dynamic is changing, though. Folks of my age just barely caught an overlap of Nintendo GameBoy and high school, and there is only so much Tetris a teenager can play — especially on a pixelated green screen. Kids today can bring with them elaborate, high-definition video game systems, DVD players, computers with high-speed Internet, and that technological step may have been a game changer around this strategy:

Teachers hope the new round of current and young adult titles — thrillers, fantasies, memoirs and even graphic novels — will prompt students to open a book rather than just watch TV, play Guitar Hero or hang out at the beach.

In the 1800s, a young Robert Schumann was a slacker rebel for skipping class to read novels. In my youth, such truancy would have been a sign of studiousness. For the youth of today, voluntary reading must be a peculiarity, and that could be the key to capturing their attention.
Maybe enjoyment isn’t the aspect of reading that ought to be emphasized. Perhaps significance ought to be moved toward the spotlight — cultural significance, intellectual significance, historical significance. I recall several group conversations outside of movie theaters during which the participant who had actually read the book stood with a respected authority, and often persuaded his or her peers to take it up. The greater detail of the text — sometimes in the form of associated edification — was usually the basis of interest, but when the movie was of a classic, having experienced the book came with the aura of achievement.
Just so, one of the girls in the high school group with which I saw Silence of the Lambs in the theater shared some of what she’d learned from the book. Not long thereafter, I took it out from the library for the ride home from college in Pittsburgh. Of course, back then, contriving to avoid boredom during a ten-hour train ride required planning and compromise, but perhaps an inculcated sense that reading carries the reward of inherent self-improvement and connection with humanity can better combat the tug of battery-powered distractions.
Toward that purpose, such books as have maintained their cross-generational connection for decades and centuries would be an easier sell. They’d be a better sell, at any rate.

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