How Will Today's Texting Teenagers Compete?

Illlustration by Peter Oumanski

The good news is that today's teenagers are avid readers and prolific writers. The bad news is that what they are reading and writing are text messages.

According to a survey carried out last year by Nielsen, Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 send and receive an average of 3,339 texts per month. Teenage girls send and receive more than 4,000.

It's an unmissable trend. Even if you don't have teenage kids, you'll see other people's offspring slouching around, eyes averted, tapping away, oblivious to their surroundings. Take a group of teenagers to see the seven wonders of the world. They'll be texting all the way. Show a teenager Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi. You might get a cursory glance before a buzz signals the arrival of the latest SMS. Seconds before the earth is hit by a gigantic asteroid or engulfed by a super tsunami, millions of lithe young fingers will be typing the human race's last inane words to itself:

C u later NOT :(

Now, before I am accused of throwing stones in a glass house, let me confess. I probably send about 50 emails a day, and I receive what seem like 200. But there's a difference. I also read books. It's a quaint old habit I picked up as a kid, in the days before cellphones began nesting, cuckoolike, in the palms of the young.

Half of today's teenagers don't read books—except when they're made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent, the lowest for any adult age group younger than 75, and down from 59 percent 20 years ago.

Back in 2004, when the NEA last looked at younger readers' habits, it was already the case that fewer than one in three 13-year-olds read for pleasure every day. Especially terrifying to me as a professor is the fact that two thirds of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week. A third of seniors don't read for pleasure at all.

Why does this matter? For two reasons. First, we are falling behind more-literate societies. According to the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's most recent Program for International Student Assessment, the gap in reading ability between the 15-year-olds in the Shanghai district of China and those in the United States is now as big as the gap between the U.S. and Serbia or Chile.

But the more important reason is that children who don't read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors.

So take a look at your bookshelves. Do you have all—better make that any—of the books on the Columbia University undergraduate core curriculum? It's not perfect, but it's as good a list of the canon of Western civilization as I know of. Let's take the 11 books on the syllabus for the spring 2012 semester: (1) Virgil's Aeneid; (2) Ovid's Metamorphoses; (3) Saint Augustine's Confessions; (4) Dante's The Divine Comedy; (5) Montaigne's Essays; (6) Shakespeare's King Lear; (7) Cervantes's Don Quixote; (8) Goethe's Faust; (9) Austen's Pride and Prejudice; (10) Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; (11) Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

Step one: Order the ones you haven't got today. (And get War and Peace, Great Expectations, and Moby-Dick while you're at it.)

Step two: When vacation time comes around, tell the teenagers in your life you are taking them to a party. Or to camp. They won't resist.

Step three: Drive to a remote rural location where there is no cell-phone reception whatsoever.

Step four: Reveal that this is in fact a reading party and that for the next two weeks reading is all you are proposing to do—apart from eating, sleeping, and talking about the books.

Welcome to Book Camp, kids.