As a teenager, I loved Twizzlers. I ate them at least every couple of days, supplementing school lunches with them and chewing on them between classes. I liked the physicality of them, the way I could leave them dangling from the side of my mouth and consume them that way, like a panda with a strand of bamboo. I recently ate a Twizzler again for the first time in about 20 years, and upon yanking one between my teeth, I grieved at how different it tasted. It had become clear to my tongue in the years between teenagehood and my thirties that there is no nutritional value in a Twizzler. It is empty material, classified as food only because it is edible. My body recognized this instinctively.
As I chewed, morose, I considered a conversation I’d had with a friend earlier in the week. In an undergraduate course I’d been a part of a few years ago, the instructor, as an icebreaker, asked us to name which book we’d put under our pillow and which book we’d throw out the window. We went around the room, and my sense of horror grew at what were deemed “window books” by these twenty-year-olds. The Great Gatsby. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Catcher in the Rye. The Scarlet Letter. Of Mice and Men. Essentially, they listed many of the books most commonly assigned to high school curricula — the classics deemed acceptable for young minds.
They hated these books. Hated them. And these were literature majors, these minds who found Gatsby so unbearable.
Their “pillow books” I’d often never heard of, and when I looked them up later, they were almost uniformly contemporary commercial YA. Books by John Green and Rainbow Rowell, Divergent books and Mortal Instruments books, junior versions of Game of Thrones whose names I no longer remember. The Harry Potter and Twilight series each appeared more than once (although Twilight also served as a window book, to my relief).
The problem these students demonstrated to me so plainly is a disconnect between reading what they enjoy at home and reading what they must in school. Making young people into lifelong readers is a matter of creating conditions by which they will enjoy reading, and in this, the high school syllabi thrust upon these twenty-year-olds are failing. The reason may be that these syllabi haven’t changed much in decades; the friend I spoke to about this is 20 years older than her students, and she, too, read Gatsby and Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men in high school. So did I. So did you, perhaps.
But getting a teenager to enjoy reading via Gatsby is not the same prospect it was in 1980 or 1990, because of the changing conditions of the media available to kids in 2017. I’m not just talking about the internet, and streaming media services, although those certainly contribute to the perception of books as too slow to enjoy. I’m talking about YA.
Young adult literature is explosively popular right now. Since the Harry Potter phenomenon goaded YA into the publishing mainstream in 1997, this popularity has both allowed exceptional books to be published that might not otherwise have been (Code Name Verity, the work of M.T. Anderson) and dragged to the bestseller list writing that should never have been typeset (Stephenie Meyer). The worst YA dangles bad sentences and cardboard characters from a Joseph Campbell skeleton, or kiddifies a romance novel and wraps it up with the triumph of eternal love.
My contempt is not for the YA genre as a whole, but for the poorly written examples of it. These books are literary junk food. They satisfy a basic need for sustenance, but they create bad habits and add nothing valuable to the reader’s diet. Joseph Campbell and romance are powerful structures, and important ones. But a good reader is an omni-reader: some Sandra Brown, some Virginia Woolf; some Jon Krakauer, some John Green. Even a bit of Rousseau and Stephenie Meyer, if I must. Readers who have never metaphorically gone beyond McDonald’s will not be able to hone their palates to appreciate fine cuisine like Austen or Vonnegut, and they certainly won’t sharpen their teeth to James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor.
This might seem like a problem restricted to high school curricula, but if college juniors who have declared themselves English majors remain bitter about Gatsby, something in the college curriculum has failed, too. These students should have moved on from YA by now, especially junk YA, and they have not. The books being taught in college have not sufficiently seduced them such that they reexamined their resistance to classics. This strikes me as a more global problem, one that involves professors reexamining these classics as well: reevaluating these books’ relevance to young minds, and designing syllabi with the intent of reaching twenty-year-olds who reflexively hate Steinbeck and Salinger.
Instructive to me was the level of class participation in an undergraduate class the week we studied The Sun Also Rises compared to the week we studied As I Lay Dying. The twenty-year-olds of today are far better equipped to appreciate Faulkner than Hemingway. Neither is writing about situations that necessarily apply to the young reader, but Faulkner is speaking a language that a person raised in a postmodern world can understand. To someone who has never known a world without the internet, someone who thrives on the jangle of four different media streams playing at once while he texts and carries on a breakfast conversation, Hemingway seems quaint, old-fashioned, but Faulkner remains fresh and vivid.
In my mind, the solution is not just to select the right books, or to teach books better, but to find stepping stones between nutrition-free Twizzlers and the semi-pearled barley of A Separate Peace. If kids are mostly reading junk, they are going to be bewildered by low-calorie but nutritional fare. Maybe dropping The Scarlet Letter from the curriculum, and adding Feed instead, would prepare a kid better for college than forcing her to chew through Hawthorne while despising it. At least she will have read something that applies to her life as it is now, something that opens her to literature as a ground of rich uncertainty rather than black-or-white distinctions and straightforward hero’s journeys. She can always read The Scarlet Letter later.
That’s the wonderful thing about engendering reading habits in young people: they will continue to explore as their abilities increase. If syllabi force young minds to draw a line between books that give them pleasure and books that do not, and to locate that line squarely between school and home, they will continue reading junk, not good books, in their spare time, until they stop reading altogether. They will never level up as readers, never read books that are food for the soul. They will keep eating Twizzlers, without cease, and will never become attuned to the inherent lack of nutritional value in such foodstuffs.