Last week, The Atlantic published an article called “The Decline of the American Book Lover.” Despite its ominous title, the piece actually just talked about the recent data on how much Americans are reading books, and the fact that 18-24 year olds are reading no less than they did before 2002.
So it got me to thinking: if young adults are reading the same amount as we did before the phrase “social media” was even in our vocabulary, then why does everyone assume that we are not? Why is it that millennials get such a bad rap when it comes to reading?
Perhaps it’s our attachment to interactive forms of media, or the abundance of entertainment channels that we are all too well-versed in. Maybe we talk so much about television and movies that people assume we don’t read anymore. But that’s our dirty little secret – we do.
The other day, I went to the Apple Store to get my iPhone fixed. I brought along my boyfriend, my laptop, my phone (obviously), and a book. My phone took about 45 minutes to restore and install its new software, so I leaned up against the tall wooden counter and began to read my book.
Then the unexpected happened. Throughout those 45 minutes, people entering the store would pass by me and stare. I noticed these people, mostly middle-aged, looking at me with puzzled expressions. At first I wondered if I had a stain on my shirt or something in my hair. But no, these people were looking at my book. An elderly woman smiled at me. A couple with children walked by and did a double-take. Some people even craned their head to see the title of my book, perhaps checking to see if it was Twilight (I was actually reading Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli). Every time I looked up at one of them, they would either look surprised or give me a nice little nod.
It was the most peculiar thing, getting noticed for reading a book in an Apple Store. My boyfriend, glued to his iPhone, sunk into the background, no more noticeable than an Apple Genius in a solid colored shirt. I, however, stuck out like a sore thumb. Once I realized it, I laughed with a little sorrow at the fact that people my age don’t just read books while waiting. A kid like me should have been texting or scrolling through Instagram or checking my Facebook. But I wasn’t.
As I left the store, I thought about what would happen if more of us started reading in public. I know many of us like to read in the comfort of our homes, snuggling under a blanket with a cup of tea (note: I don’t actually drink tea while reading). But what if every time you saw a young person on the bus or waiting in line or sitting at Starbucks, they were reading a book instead of looking at their phone? Wouldn’t you start to think that we, as a generation, are not losing touch with the arts or literature, but we are in fact just as interested in reading as we always have been?
This is why I think we ought to read in public more often. I know that my generation is reading. We might not talk about it as much as we talk about the Kardashians, but that’s what we need to change. Sometimes I won’t ever discuss what I’m reading until I go to a friend’s house and notice a stack of books on their desk. Then our conversation turns to stories, concepts and ideas that we recently discovered within the pages of our latest reads. I love those conversations. We should have more of them.
I am sick of older people telling us that our generation is doomed because our attention spans are too short (despite the fact that the running times of our movies and television shows have gotten much longer in the past couple decades). They say that Google Maps has ruined our ability to read a map (they know it’s still a map, right?) and that Facebook is preventing us from maintaining close friendships (studies have shown that a majority of a young adult’s Facebook friends are so-called “loose ties,” so we still have the same amount of close relationships as our parents did). I’ve even had friends who say that BuzzFeed has rendered them unable to comprehend thoroughly written articles (if you are blaming BuzzFeed for your problems, you may have bigger issues to deal with).
This is all a matter of perspective. And it’s possible that we are simply misunderstood by earlier generations, which is something that seems to happen to every generation anyway. All I’m saying is, the more that people see us reading, the more they may reconsider their opinion on the “decline of the American book lover.”
So whether you’re an avid reader or someone who doesn’t read much – like I was until last year – try a little trick: take a book with you when you know you’re going to have wait somewhere (the dentist’s office, dinner at your aunt’s house, your professor’s office hours, etc.). If you tend to check your phone a lot like I do, keep a book at your side and then pick it up every time you have the urge to grab your phone. The conversations and connections you’ll be able to make with others will multiply exponentially if you spend your free minutes reading rather than refreshing your news feed. And who knows? Your act of reading could, for a moment, restore another’s faith in our generation.
I don’t feel the need to explain why reading is important. But I do think we, as young adults, can do a better job at proving we value it too. If we succeed, future generations might embrace reading as a pastime that never left. And maybe then, it might be perfectly normal for a kid to read a book in an Apple Store.