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Bookmark: How can we reverse the steady decline of reading by teens?

August 24, 2018

I am trying not to get all hand-wringy over this, but the book news this week was dire: One-third of all high school students do not read for pleasure. Fewer than 20 percent of high school students read every day.

This is a tragedy.

Instead, their free time is eaten up by video games and social media, which are not, as you know, really reading, even though words are often involved.

This news came from professors at San Diego State University, who analyzed data from a decades-long survey project through the University of Michigan called Monitoring the Future.

The San Diego professors analyzed the reading habits of more than 1 million teens between 1976 and 2016.

Thats a lot of teenagers.

What they found was a steep, sharp drop in reading. In the 1970s, about 60 percent of high school seniors read a book, a magazine or a newspaper every day. In 2016, that number was only 16 percent.

No wonder publishers are in trouble.

No wonder newspapers and magazines are in trouble.

No wonder the world is in trouble.

My father, an English professor, used to say, An uneducated populace is easier to control. Reading makes us smarter. Not reading, Im afraid, makes us dumber.

I remember high school, though it was a long time ago, and I am profoundly glad that there was nothing like Snapchat or Facebook or texting then because I would have humiliated myself in many ways. I was shy face-to-face but when it came to the written word I was fearless. Best not to give young people like me a forum until we learn restraint.

Still, I dont think that Instagram and iPhones would have erased my reading life, and it makes me profoundly sad to think that its doing that to so many kids.

All of the cliches and platitudes about reading are true. It does help you cope with your own life. It does show you how huge and diverse the world is. It does make you empathetic. It does entertain you. It does teach you all kinds of new things. It does inspire you.

Minnesota is home to a wealth of accomplished writers for children and teens. You can think of a dozen names without even trying: Kate DiCamillo, Anne Ursu, Louise Erdrich, Shannon Gibney, Margi Preus, Alison McGhee, Pete Hautman, Jacqueline West, Geoff Herbach, William Durbin, Kao Kalia Yang, Swati Avasthi the list is long and those names are just a start. And the MFA program at Hamline University in writing for children and teens is one of the best (and the first) in the country.

Can wonderful books and smart, savvy writers solve this problem?

Solutions offered in the news story include seeding your house with books, taking your child to the library at an early age, and encouraging reading of all books, including graphic novels.

The love of reading starts young, and it starts at home. I suspect that I would have loved reading no matter where I grew up, but a book-filled house with a professor father and librarian mother really sealed the deal. My mother took us to the library every Saturday, and we got books as gifts every birthday and Christmas.

So thats one way.

But what else? How did you get hooked on reading? How do you encourage your child to put down the phone and pick up a book? And if you are a teenager and you happen to be reading this, hooray! Tell me why (and what) you read.

Write me at books@startribune.com and we will solve this catastrophe together.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks

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