Exiting the movie theater after a showing of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," I overheard the following conversation between two teenagers:
Girl 1: "So, what happened at the end?"
Girl 2: "It takes too long to explain."
Girl 1: "No, come on. What happened?"
Girl 2: "You have to read the book."
Girl 1: "You know I don't read. Just tell me!"
Now, being the curmudgeon that I am, I was tempted to draw from this depressing snippet broad, sorrowful and far-reaching conclusions about the state of reading among our youth. Particularly dispiriting was Girl 1's "don't read" as opposed to "can't read" -- a statement suggesting a frame of mind rather than a deficiency of skill.
The eerily defiant attitude of Girl 1 puts one in mind of Kanye West's bizarre proclamation that he is "a proud non-reader of books." Being a non-reader is nothing to be proud of. A rise in proud non-readers would bode ill for the nation's future.
Let us distinguish (as the scholarship does) between what we might call reading as obligation and reading for fun. Presumably, Girl 1 was not suggesting that she skips her academic assignments (although I am willing to believe that she, ahem, economizes on them). It's likely, then, that her statement "You know I don't read" was meant to convey the meaning "You know I don't read except when I'm forced to."
Every now and then, we tend to go into a tizzy about the decline of reading among young people -- I do, too -- but I wonder whether we might be tizzying for the wrong reasons. The tendency nowadays is to sound the alarm by pointing to the pretty well-established correlation between reading for fun and academic achievement. Reason for concern, yes -- but more basic principles are at stake.
A decade ago, a National Endowment for the Arts report, "Reading at Risk," linked the rapid fall in "literary" reading to a decline in civil participation generally. We should be especially worried, the report warned, if we believe "that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy."
I am one of those believers. Democracy needs readers -- in particular, readers of literature. Tackling a book (whether print or e-) is a considerable undertaking, requiring an investment of time, attention and serious thought -- and the tougher the text, the more serious the thought. In return, we readers learn the importance of reflection, of patience, of trying to understand another's point of view -- all skills that are vital to democratic politics and seriously in decline across the spectrum.
The more of us who (like Girl 1) reduce reading to no more than an unpleasant obligation, the faster we descend toward the world of Ray Bradbury's novel "Fahrenheit 451."
In a much-quoted and much-misconstrued passage in Bradbury's masterpiece, the fire chief, Captain Beatty, is explaining why they burn books: "What traitors books can be! You think they're backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives."
Beatty's point -- and thus Bradbury's -- is often overlooked: The censorship that the novel describes moved from the bottom up, not the top down. The motive force wasn't the regime's desire to stifle dissent; the motive force was the public's desire to stifle complexity. To the end of his days, Bradbury insisted that his masterpiece had been misunderstood. His polemic wasn't against state power; it was against a public that decided to stop reading.
Reading that challenges us is important -- for adults and young people alike. I don't mean reading that challenges our ideas; I mean reading that calls upon significant intellectual resources. I mean books that are hard.
This notion, of course, requires that we have some ability to sort texts according to which are the more challenging. Traditionally, we have done this by establishing a canon, a set of great works of literature that one ought to read in order to be considered well-educated.
Nowadays, that sort of thing tends to be dismissed as intellectual imperialism, which perhaps it is. The trouble is, we aren't very good at measuring in any objective way the relative complexity of texts. (Lexile levels are the most prominent effort in this direction, but they have a long way to go. Consider that the calculator at Lexile.com judges "The Hunger Games," at 810, as significantly more complex than "The Grapes of Wrath," which clocks in at 680.)
Even if one accepts the conclusion of recent research that reading for fun among the young is enjoying a resurgence -- particularly among girls, long the more impressive and enthusiastic readers -- the surge is due largely to the explosion of the market for young adult fiction. (The book a teenage girl was most likely to have read in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, is "The Hunger Games.")
Young adult fiction is a fine thing, but the lingering question is whether the upsurge will prove a gateway to literature of greater complexity, or whether young people will sit around waiting for the next big trilogy, until at some point they age out of reading for fun completely. We don't yet know the answer, but I remain hopeful.
Which brings us back to the two teenagers outside the movie theater. In my optimistic imagination, I see Girl 2 refusing Girl 1's entreaties, and Girl 1, still perplexed about an ending that even otherwise favorable reviewers found "an incoherent, rapid blur," decided to pick up the novel after all, and so enjoyed it that she embarked on a lifelong quest to read ever more difficult literary texts, and so to embrace the patience, tolerance and appreciation for complexity so crucial to democracy.
On the other hand, maybe she just looked up a summary on the Internet.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln."