Do Young Adults Read For Pleasure?

Jul 18, 2013
Originally published on July 19, 2013 12:31 pm

As he prepares his summer reading list, book lover and journalist Danny Heitman says he’s worried college students aren’t reading for fun anymore.

In a recent writing course he taught, he asked his students the last book they read for pleasure. Many of them hadn’t read a book for fun since “Harry Potter.”

Heitman is hesitant to offer a reading list to college-age young men and women, since lists tend to have an air of assigned reading. But he offers these 10 titles.

“They’re not necessarily the best books of all time,” Heitman told Here & Now. “Just a handful of volumes that I love, and that hold some appeal, I hope, for college kids.”

Recent columns by Danny Heitman:

Guest

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And in a moment, we'll hear all about today's Emmy nominations. But first, to someone who thinks we should put down the TV remote and do a little reading. Well, he's talking specifically about college students. He is Danny Heitman, columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate. And he joins us from WRKF in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And Danny, you teach a college writing class, what are you noticing right now about your students?

DANNY HEITMAN: Well, I noticed that whenever I would grade my student papers that the writing didn't really express the kind of familiarity with English that comes from doing a lot of reading just for fun outside of the classroom. So I did a little experiment. I asked my students, as one of their quiz questions, just as a bonus, when was the last time you read a book for fun? And I discovered that about half of the students responded by listing a Harry Potter novel...

(LAUGHTER)

HEITMAN: ...which is, you know, those are great books, but they tend to be books that kids read when they're in middle school. And so the evidence suggested to me that more than half of my students probably had not read a book for fun in almost a decade.

HOBSON: Wow.

HEITMAN: And that troubled me.

HOBSON: And you think that's a new phenomenon? I mean, this is not something that has been seen with students in past classes, in previous years?

HEITMAN: I do know that the National Endowment for the Arts did a landmark study in 2007. The report mentioned that more than half of Americans between 18 and 24 almost never read for fun.

HOBSON: Well, why do you think they're not reading as much?

HEITMAN: I wish that I had some new and clever and novel new reason. I do think that the Internet is a wonderful development and it offers many opportunities for learning and enlightenment. But I think that it also is very much a medium that inclines toward distraction. And so I don't think that students necessarily have a natural habit of sustained attention that you really need to bring to a text and - so that you can enjoy a book-length text.

HOBSON: Well, if you have a captive audience out there listening to this who says, you're right. I'm not reading enough. I want to get out there and change my ways and start reading more, what would you suggest that they read first?

HEITMAN: Something that I read when I was just starting college was "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole. I think this novel really has a lot of resonance for kids of a certain age because it's very much about adult society and about a man's extended adolescence and his skepticism about adult society. And for someone who is in college and is really beginning to question the social standards of their parents or their teachers, it's really a funny book to read.

Also, there's a funny book called "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson. And it's a memoir of his childhood in the '50s. That's a great comic novel. I really like the horror stories of Roald Dahl. Most young people will remember Dahl as the guy who wrote "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant..."

HOBSON: "The Witches". Yeah. "James and the Giant Peach."

HEITMAN: "The Witches," exactly. And there's just something great about encountering a children's author who also writes these marvelous horror stories.

HOBSON: Danny, if people of a young age are moving away from books, is it possible that they are moving towards something else that's also valuable, that maybe you're not giving them enough credit?

HEITMAN: Well, I think that we do have to avoid this temptation to think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and that today's young folks are not as smart as we were. In many - in so many ways, I think they're so much smarter.

HOBSON: Yeah.

HEITMAN: But I don't think that the Internet has to replace the book. And I think that we are basically creatures of narrative, and we'll always be creatures of narrative. And we'll have a hunger that needs to be filled for that sustained story that we get in reading a book. And so I would encourage young people to read. I've often compared reading to marriage, you know? We get married because we want to share an important work. We want to deepen ourselves spiritually. But we also get married because we want to have some fun, too, right?

(LAUGHTER)

HEITMAN: And I think reading - reading is that way too. We - reading is important and it's something that we need today, and it's something like can deepen us. But, gosh, it also can be so much fun, and there's such pleasure in language. And I think we really need to reconnect more young people with the sheer pleasure of our language, and that's what reading can do.

HOBSON: Danny Heitman, columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate. Danny, thank you so much.

HEITMAN: Thank you, Jeremy, and it was good to be here today.

HOBSON: And if you are moved to read, you can find Danny's book recommendations at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.