This kind of thing just makes me sad. Sad, sad, sad. It seems that whenever any event causes people to think about how “young people today don’t read” — in this case, bizarrely, it’s the failure of English looters to break into Waterstone’s — the worn old words get dragged out and dusted off, as Nikesh Shukla drags them here:

We need to . . . create a culture that lasts the entirety of young adult life. The people who will want to read will read. Those who might stand to, as Waterstone’s put it, “learn something”, need to be engaged more.

How does that start? It starts in-house, in the publishing industry. We need to produce more books that relate to these kids and their lives, offering something relevant or aspirational. We need to market these books directly to these audiences, make young people feel included and empowered to read. We need to deliver these books in relevant and contemporary ways. Maybe the rioters would have BBM’d less if they had other stuff to read on their phones.

Engaged, relate, relevant, aspirational, included, empowered, relevant (again), contemporary. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone really, truly believes that if the publishing industry just published more books featuring dark-skinned characters a whole new culture of readers would miraculously spring up.

The young people Shukla is rightly concerned about have, for the most part, grown up in homes with few or no books, and at school their overworked and often underprepared teachers struggle to inculcate basic literacy. Nothing about this situation “starts in-house, in the publishing industry”; such a claim simultaneously elevates publishers’ importance far beyond what’s warranted and creates pointless guilt (since the imposed expectations can never be fulfilled). Whether you want to blame the political Left or Right, or secularism, or media culture, or capitalism, or whatever for the recent riots, the problems go far, far deeper than a lack of appropriate reading material.

And while I’m complaining, one more point: this whole post assumes that reading is an intrinsically pacifying experience. But it isn’t. Maybe — maybe — fiction can work that way, but what if these young people gained the necessary literacy to read and really absorb The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Wretched of the Earth? Reading gives birth to revolutionaries, too.


  1. Bookstores not being looted simply says a lot for libraries. You don't have to loot the cow when you can get the milk for free.

  2. It's just so silly. The reason Johnny won't read is that there isn't a single book in the whole world that would interest him.

    But if we just try a little harder I'm sure we can write that book, the book that would grab his attention and get him hooked, the book he'd like more than any other book that's ever been written. No problem.

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