Just as it’s easier to eat fatty fast food than to prepare and eat healthy food, it’s easier to read books that don’t challenge the reader.
But teenagers who live on a diet of fast food get fat and develop rotten skin, and teenagers who live on a literary diet of easy peasy reading do parallel damage to their brains, their vocabularies and their career-prospects.
According to a nationwide survey of half a million students in Britain, teenage pupils there are developing the habit of not reading books that challenge them.
It’s so much easier to read TV and film tie-in books like the Hunger Games series than to read an original novel that might take a little more effort. Tie-in books have something in common with the soundtrack song from a movie: once a film-goer learns it, they quite enjoy hearing it on radio. Many times.
Similarly, a Hunger Games tie-in book is like revisiting a friend. The reader doesn’t have to come to terms with new characters, new situations. In many cases, they may actually be reading in print what they have already seen on screen. Easy peasy.
The curious thing is that these books are effectively reversing the free choice made by primary school students. The younger kids love books that are beyond their reading age. Once they go into second level schools, however, they tend to prefer books that don’t greatly trouble their brain cells.
The professor who led the study says that “secondary school teachers and librarians need to get better at encouraging children appropriately”.
That’s putting it mildly and leaves out the responsibility of parents, which is paramount.
Kids who grow up surrounded by books are simply more successful than kids who don’t.
Just as in the past, parents got worried when their offspring failed to move beyond Enid Blyton, today parents should get worried when their offspring can’t be bothered to read anything other than drivel about characters with which they’re familiar from TV and films.
They should get worried because the analytical brain is developed by complicated plotting, by complex characters and by humour which derives from playing with language or with situation.
The transposition of the fast food syndrome to reading matter is one that should worry all of us.
We shouldn’t console ourselves with the attitude that “it’s OK as long as the teenagers are reading something”. No, it isn’t. Intelligence is like a muscle: use it or lose it.
But then again, as millions of adult readers enjoy a truly bad book like Fifty Shades of Gray because it is so unchallenging, how can we expect teenagers to seek out better books?