“Reports of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

A week or so ago, I stumbled across this Buzzfeed article. The program discussed within, Recovering the Classics, seeks to breathe new life into classic literature by inviting contemporary artists to submit fresh cover designs for these oft-overlooked gems. Upon reading that any artist could submit, I had a brief, flashing thought:

Hey! I dabble in art. And I like books! It could be fun to contribute a cover.

(See above for a few examples of my watercolors.) But then I paged through Buzzfeed’s selection of favorite covers. My immediate response?

Never mind on that whole, me-contributing-thing.

The artists who have submitted designs are brilliant. Not just in terms of artistic mastery, though that’s undeniably present. Instead, what really caught my attention was the dynamism of the covers, the way they captured each novel’s essence.

Dracula‘s cover captures the insidious menace the eponymous character poses to the unsuspecting world. Moby Dick‘s design, in its unexpected emerald palette, highlights the intertwined fate of whale and ship. The anatomical approach and eerie color scheme of Heart of Darkness‘s cover communicate the tale’s grim undertones. Each design is phenomenal. Each one does precisely what Recovering the Classics aims to do. They promise the prospective reader that these classics are alive, engaging, adventurous. That they are much more than a dusty collection of pages.

(Inconsequently, my curation of covers may betray my fondness for Victorian-era works.)

Stunning in their own right, these bibliophilic artworks also dovetail serendipitously with my recent musings on reading, relevance, and modern Americans.

Every few months, a swan song article about the death of reading emerges online. There are slight variations in approach, theory, prognosis, etc., but the theme is always the same: we are witnessing the slow demise of reading, and by extension, of culture.

Often, these articles target teenagers, citing the current tech-oriented generation as indicative (and usually causative) of this dismal trend. The latest example of this journalistic genre is David Denby’s The New Yorker piece, Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore? 

I’m a fan of anybody who is an advocate of all things bookish. I also 100% concur with his closing assertion that teachers possess great potential to positively influence young reader’s habits. But I was equally glad to discover BookRiot’s speedy rebuttal by Jeff O’Neal: How Not to Worry About Teenagers Reading.

Its cool, logical tone provides a nice counterpoint to Denby’s more emotive piece, which, although well-written, is largely guided by personal observation and unsubstantiated assumptions. Denby even goes so far as to dismiss “the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless.”

Granted, not all disciplines lend themselves to statistical analysis. But with one solid statistic, O’Neal defuses Denby’s argument that teenagers are the reading slackers of American society. Actually, a greater percentage (46%) of teens (age 16-17) read daily than either readers aged 30+, or readers 65+ (the group least likely to read daily).

But if we’re pursuing an experiential approach to the debate, here’s mine: growing up, I was one of a group of four friends. Two of us were readers. Two of us were not. This trend lasted all the way to mid-high school for one, and early college for the other.

But somewhere along the way, things changed. Both now read for pleasure. One of them dropped her nursing major to earn her BA in English. Weekly, she polishes off more books than I could dream, in part because she has chosen to take advantage of profession that allows for ample reading time.

I cannot pinpoint all the factors that transformed my friends’ reading lives. Some of it, I’m sure, was related to personal character arc, if you will. Some of it was simply a matter of a reader finding her right book. One of my pals found her reading stride when she discovered Harry Potter. By no means was that the end of her reading journey–she reads broadly and deeply–but it was enough to get her started. She just needed literary matchmaking: the collision of the right book with the right reader at the right time, culminating in that magical moment when the world of books opens wide, transforming from something stale and obligatory to something transcendent.

Mr. Denby, I’m sure, would be the first to snuff at my reference to Harry Potter. After all, he mentions the series by name and part of the crisis he proposes centers on this concept of serious v.s. inconsequential writing.

But many of the benefits which he ascribes to serious writing only are also innate to the reading experience in general. The ability to empathize, to inhabit a perspective or experience different than your own, to process loss, jealousy, conflict, joy, bittersweet maturation…. These are found in many novels without status within the classic literary canon. To dismiss this type of reading experience, which can be so fundamentally transformative, is, I believe, a bit short-sighted.

And who is to say that any reader’s journey is stagnant? The enjoyment of books like Twilight and Harry Potter does not prohibit a reader from turning down literary avenues like Frankenstein or The Picture of Dorian Grey or any other wonderful, “serious” works? MA in Literature and all, I frequently hop back and forth between urban fantasy novels and a tome like Middlemarch. Because isn’t that part of the joy of reading? The endless worlds of variety and discovery opened to us?

It is easy to take a single snapshot in time and extrapolate it into something more pervasive. Certainly, choices we make as teenagers bear echoes throughout our lives. But I hesitate to be overly alarmist, when I’ve seen so many of my own generation metamorphose into readers over time. After all, don’t we all grow (hopefully) in many ways as we move from teenager to adult?

If the choices lie between condemning teenagers’ reading because they aren’t reading the “right” stuff (“right” being a highly elastic concept, as modern literary scholars are constantly challenging the idea of “canon” and what belongs in it) and encouraging them to find the stories which nurture a lifestyle of reading, I’d vote for the latter every time.

Because teens are reading. Never has it been easier for them to find stories which speak to them. And as the market shows, many are greedily gobbling it up. If they have, like I did, teachers who make them fall in love with Shakespeare and Eliot, that’s something worth celebrating. If Recovering the Classics can make Madame Bovary sparkle for a new generation, let’s applaud. But I don’t want to forget to celebrate the joy of a reader’s discovering their own personal reading canon, those stories that ultimately transfigure them into who they will become.


2 thoughts on ““Reports of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. Lauren – Your own watercolors are astonishing! Thanks for also posting the cover art. I love the Dracula and Moby Dick illustrations. In some ways I share the sentiments of both Denby and O’Neal. On the one hand, as an educator for more than twenty five years, I witnessed a sometimes alarming decline from year to year in writing and reading skills. On the other hand, I also came across many remarkable students who were enthusiastic readers of varied genres and who had sophisticated perspectives. I have been amazed by some of the young people I have encountered in their ability to comprehend and articulate ideas. Not sure what to conclude about this except that both streams run together into the mighty river of contemporary culture.


    1. Thanks for your kind words regarding my watercolors. 🙂 I definitely think educators have a unique and insightful perspective into social trends over time–they also have an incredible ability to affect how young people approach literature, sometimes for the rest of their lives. I still remember the high school teacher who opened me up the multi-meaninged nature of Shakespeare’s work; I remember the very moment it clicked–an instant in my life that undoubtedly helped me fall in love with literature as it’s classically defined. I hold out hope that as a society, we’ll continue to produce teachers who’re gifted in breathing new life into such works for future students, too.


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