I work in a large second-hand bookshop and I see a lot of people, mainly from the older population, but occasionally teenagers brave the mighty depths of the bookshelves too. I often hear comments made about the shop as people cross over the threshold, some are in awe, others are excited, and some are just looking for lost husbands and wives. A lot of people compare us to a library, and no, we are not a library, we have a much better selection of books and even though they’re not free, £3 for a paperback which you don’t have to worry about returning sounds like a bargain to me. Some people come in due to our coffee sign and ask if we have a café, but alas, we only have a coffee machine.
It’s safe to say I’ve heard my fair share of surprised, good and downright rude comments, but one particular comment made within the shop has stuck with me for the last few weeks. A teenager walked in with their grandparents and the grandmother confessed to reading a lot of books (we bookshop employees salute you, Grandma) however, the teenager remarked that they hadn’t read many books, even scoffed at the idea of reading more books, and considered it lucky if they read one book a year. The grandmother seemed a little shocked and even sad by their grandchild’s response, but accepted it with the sort of shrug which suggested ‘oh well, kids don’t read much these days’.
I was troubled by this because this teenager sounded genuinely proud of the fact that they didn’t read much. Reading has been scientifically proven to help kids with learning and makes people more intelligent, so it got me thinking why some people just don’t read. Do they really dislike reading that much? Is it laziness? Are they slow readers and feel overwhelmed when presented with a book? Is it just not ‘cool’ enough? Or do they simply not have enough time to read?
Children generally do like reading, and enjoy books even from as early as 6 months, but the onus falls on the parents to read regularly to their children. If a child never sees a book or is rarely read to, then they are unlikely to pick up books on their own or continue reading as they get older.
I can only go on my own experiences and observations, but I thought back to my time as a teenager and it suddenly struck me that English classes are not always the best environments to encourage people to read. I say this because of the type of literature which is presented to teenagers, particularly at GCSE and A-Level. The books you read in class are often dictated by what your teacher chooses and what the exam board have deemed as acceptable. They are often books which have been labelled as ‘Classics’ and just from my limited knowledge of reading books, I can tell you now that there is a big difference between general fiction and classic fiction.
You may be familiar with certain authors such as Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Hardy, Shelley, Stoker, Priestley and so on. I think nearly every person has studied Shakespeare at some point, and even though you may consider some of these authors as ‘better’ than others, you will know that the language and style of writing found in these books and plays are not always the easiest to read, in fact it can be downright tedious. Now that’s not to say that you shouldn’t read these authors and you shouldn’t study their writing, you should, but books which are difficult to read and understand are not going to entice people to read, and I believe this is part of the problem when it comes to teenagers and reading.
When I think of the books teenagers like to read and the popular YA books, the likes of John Green, Angie Thomas, Stephen Chbosky, Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins spring to mind. Shakespeare, Steinbeck and Priestley do not jump into my mind and of the classic authors out there, there are very few I would actually recommend. You could argue that reading the classics gives people a better understanding of literature, I would personally use the word ‘better’ loosely here, yes, I believe reading classics does help with writing, but I also believe that these classics are largely used for academic benefit and not for the general benefit of modern audiences.
I have two counter arguments here, the first is to look at what actually sells today, and the second is to look at which modern books people actually praise and talk about.
Classic fiction does sell steadily over a long timeframe, but it doesn’t sell in the same numbers as popular, modern books do in a short timeframe, and let’s face it, life is short and people want to try and make money (but if you think writing books will make you lots of money, then I would seriously reconsider your career plans). If schools really wanted teenagers to enjoy books, and actually wanted to teach them how to write and sell books for a modern audience, then I don’t think they would, or should jump straight to the classics.
It’s not just the difficulty of some of these texts that is the problem, but it’s also the types of issues and themes that these books and plays discuss. They’re not aimed at modern teenagers, so it’s no wonder that some teenagers find it hard to relate to the characters in these stories. You’re much more likely to read a book if you can at least relate to the characters and understand them, but most classic fiction is dated, with older characters, and has very little resemblance to the modern world.
So as much as I was a little disheartened by this teenager who scoffed at the idea of reading books, I can totally understand and sympathise with them if the only books they’ve been in contact with in the last couple of years are the likes of Shakespeare and Hardy. I wouldn’t choose to pick up Shakespeare for fun, but I would choose a novel by John Green, and that’s precisely my point, if the books aren’t fun, relatable and don’t really teach teenagers how to write for the modern age, then what is the point in making teenagers read solely classic fiction? It’s only likely to turn them off reading altogether and I’ll probably see more teenagers and adults coming into the shop laughing at the idea of reading, which in my opinion, isn’t going to be good for anyone.