Keeping faith with words

On teaching literature in the digital age

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  • Published 20190507
  • ISBN: 9781925773620
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

FOR MOST OF us who care to think about such things, the teenager was invented by JD Salinger in 1951. Of course, before he was described in literature, the teenager was a naturally occurring phenomenon in postwar America. As that country became the world’s richest, a whole generation of young white people emerged who did not need to go immediately to work, whose parents’ relative wealth and resulting access to astounding inventions like the washing machine and the motor car had created a new leisure. What Holden Caulfield has that young people did not have before him is time to think. Like a 1940s Hamlet he wanders the streets of New York, out of the jurisdiction of parents and teachers, free to ponder the ‘phonies’ he has known, free to feel miserable, free to feel trapped by the future his parents imagine for him.

Every semester I stand in front of a class of first- or second-year university students and ask them what books they have read. The answers differ from country to city, from inner to outer west, from degree to degree. Every year fewer of them have read much at all. Once it was an anomaly to find a creative writing student who had not read many books (how we used to laugh in the staffroom – the thought of taking a creative writing class without having read any books!); now it is the norm. The anomaly is the student who has read books despite the fact that she has a phone to soothe her and provide her with continuous company, despite the fact that she doesn’t need to leave the house to see a movie, despite the fact that there is simply so much else to do. I don’t despair any more. I just notice it.

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