Young Adulteration

Kid lit, cultural literacy, and the rise of books that are fun to read
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  September 21, 2011


In the late 1980s, when I was nine or 10, my mom bought me my own copy of A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Our Children Need To Know. Written by a cantankerous humanities professor by the name of E.D. Hirsch, the book promoted the notion that educated Americans must share a particular body of knowledge, heavy on the Western canon. I was expected to know that Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, that Prospero stars in The Tempest, and that Oedipus gouged out his own eyes for sleeping with his mother.

Sometimes there were quizzes.

Mom bought me plenty of fun books, too, but I knew there was a difference. Though I loved Paul Zindel, Madeline L'Engle, and Stephen King with an ardor beyond reason, I knew that these books were somehow less important than the books in my dictionary and those I read for school.

At the time, Hirsch's book for adults, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, shared the top of the bestseller list with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. It seems my mother was but one of many book-buying Americans preoccupied with preserving traditional ideas of high culture. When it came to literature, worthiness seemed to be contingent on a modicum of inaccessibility: good books were often old, dense, slow of plot, and difficult to read. If a novel was contemporary and fun, it was suspect.

Though I did not know it then, mine was the last generation to be taught this distinction. Identity politics and queer theory and post-structuralism — ideas that had been breeding in the academic realm for decades — soon seeped into the general culture. Suddenly, the idea that every child should read books by dead white men was suspect. Imagine what would happen today if an elementary school teacher berated her student for not knowing classical literature — the headlines, the lawsuits, the 24-hour coverage on Fox News — and this should give you some idea of just how much has changed.

While the canon was falling to pieces, a great wave of babies subsumed the relatively feeble ranks of GenXers like me. What emerged, as these babies came of age, was a vast new market for books written especially for them: the so-called Young Adult category. Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that, since 1997, the number of Young Adult titles released annually has increased tenfold, from 3000 to over 30,000. YA books now comprise a quarter of the book market, and YA sales figures increase every year.

And adults — old adults — are reading YA too. Ten years after Harold Bloom criticized Harry Potter for having no redeeming literary worth, Pamela Paul wrote an essay in the New York Times about how she and a number her peers enjoyed YA for that very reason. She quoted one fan who praised YA books for not writing about "middle-aged anomie or disappointed people" and for being "like good television," another who favors them because they're "easier to read, and people are tired."

What's more, adult literature has reinvented itself in YA's image. After all, Jonathan Franzen — contemporary fiction's high-culture mascot — has said that novels must be engaging and visceral enough to compete with television. The ascendance of young-adult literature is really the story of readable books losing their stigma.

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