Monday, October 6, 2008

THE FUTURE OF WORDS

Dave Eggers, Esquire - The truth is that American publishers put out 411,000 individual titles last year, an all-time record, and netted $25 billion--hardly a sagging industry. And those kids who have abandoned books for electronic media? Since 2002, juvenile book sales have shown compound annual growth of 4.6 percent for hardcover books and 2.1 percent for paperbacks.

Anecdotally, we know this. We know about Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Eldest--these juggernauts of contemporary youth literature--but still we cluck with acknowledgment when some pundit tells us that books are being crushed by an all-powerful digital junta. It must be true, we think--just yesterday I saw some kid on the bus, and he wasn't reading a book!

Since 2002 I've taught a class for high schoolers around the Bay Area. We meet once a week, and the 20 or so students come to read everything they can get their hands on, from The Paris Review to Transition to, well, Esquire. Every so often, I bring some of these assumptions I've heard to the class. I ask how many of them have Facebook pages (three of 20); how many spend more than an hour a day on the Internet (one said he did); and how many play World of Warcraft (only one, Terence Li, a kid who grew up in the roughest neighborhood in the city, reads The Kenyon Review for fun, and is headed to Stanford next year loaded down with scholarships).

These "it's worse now than before" studies are always framed to imply that the teens' parents, at the same age, read more. And that their grandparents, well, they read their asses off. But this is simply not true. Far more Americans are educated now than they were 100 years ago, and infinitely more go to college. As a result, there is now a pool of potential readers that is far larger than it was a century ago.

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