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Gen Z’s Relationship With Reading

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David Mitchell Som

Staff Writer

David M. Som (they/he) is a Minnesota native, an English major by day, and mysterious cryptid by night. David often spends their free time lurking around their school’s campus, wandering around New York City, or staring into large bodies of water when they’re not frozen. You can find David @davidmsom on Instagram.

I was born in 2001. This unequivocally places me into the category of Generation Z. As such, I am a native of the digital age. I was raised in the era of social media, emojis, and neo-dadaist humor conveyed through absurdist memes. My smartphone and laptop are essential in remaining connected with and informed about the world around me, as well as to conduct the majority of my work as a writer, a student, and a citizen. I acknowledge my generation’s divergence from the physical world and the concept of “living in the moment” through the collective digitization of our lives. So, why am I hard-pressed to combat the generalizations that follow suit from these statements when they’re placed on me by older generations?

In a time where phrases like “OK, Boomer” have entered the mainstream in direct retaliation against sweeping statements made toward younger Millennials and Generation Z, intergenerational discourse has reached a relative peak. Age groups have polarized in defense. Every generation has its own share of critics.

All too often, I see caricatures and comics that depict my age group as fundamentally clueless. We supposedly don’t know how to use cassette tapes, VHS tapes, and rotary phones. In truth, I’ve used all three. I’ve had more than one college professor drone on in class about how my generation is killing public libraries.

I’m not all that hurt by these statements, really. At most, I find these generalizations silly and without basis. I tend to ignore them in my daily life. To an extent, I even understand the place from which they arise. People are afraid that they themselves will obsolesce over time. No one likes to feel they are irrelevant in a quickly-changing world.

However, I still find myself yearning to rectify these statements, particularly those that center around Gen Z’s relationship with reading and libraries.

Yes, we still use libraries.

My generation still uses libraries, but we use them for far more than just checking out books.

As a film studies minor, I often check out the movies required for my classes so I can watch them with subtitles. Without subtitles, I wouldn’t be able to understand and enjoy them the same way as my peers, without having to shell out the cost of renting or buying the films online—something I ultimately couldn’t afford to do.

As a whole, libraries provide accessibility to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it, especially to disabled people. Entire sections are dedicated to large print books and audiobooks, which give people with vision impairments the opportunity to enjoy their favorite books at no charge.

Libraries give economically disadvantaged people the resources they need. They provide students with access to necessary study tools. Each standardized test season, I see students at the second-floor tables poring over SAT, ACT, and GRE study books they’ve checked out, each easily costing $50 or more a pop. At the library, however, they can use them for free.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that libraries are a safe haven. Many hold food shelves and support groups. They have a ton of other resources on topics ranging from LGBTQ issues to bereavement to sexual health that don’t often come to mind when people think of libraries. Many kids flock to libraries as their place to go when life grows overwhelming. When I’m not at the library for books, I’m there for mid-afternoon snacks, zines, movie screenings, and groups.

Yes, we still read…

Many Gen Z kids love to read. If not a dear and cherished pastime, reading is still something many of us do when we’re bored or when we find a book that piques our interest.

When I was first learning to read, The Class Pet from the Black Lagoon was my absolute favorite to check out from the school library. I was obsessed with the Harry Potter series in elementary school. Part of me still clings to the series’ sentimental value for the role it played in my most formative years—despite my lack of recent involvement in the fandom. It seemed like at least half of my peers in middle school claimed to be demigods and flaunted their knowledge of Greek mythology because they read the Percy Jackson series over the summer. In high school, my friends and I would often loan one another our favorite books before running off to class. We still enjoy the otherworldly captivation of words on a page that generations before us have for hundreds of years.

…but our view on the literary canon has changed.

Any high school student can likely recall Shakespeare, Salinger, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Golding as part of their required English courses. They can recount memories of Socratic seminars, presentations, and worksheets based around their books and similar classic works. My class curricula were chock full of authors whose books shaped and purportedly epitomized Western culture and shared experience. Those authors were all long-dead, white, and male. The protagonists’ sentiments are often lost on young, modern audiences of vastly varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Any of the books I read for class by non-white or non-male authors were because I chose to read them, not because they were required or even offered.

We crave inclusion that reflects our diversity.

The issue here isn’t of questioning the legitimacy, popularity, or influence of any curriculum author and their work. It’s not of my generation’s shared hatred of reading, either, because we don’t hate reading. We don’t hate books. No one is denying the fact that Shakespeare’s characteristic iambic pentameter and sexual innuendos have prospered in the four hundred years since his death.

Rather, the issue is the dearth of inclusion of authors who reflect the diversity of the classroom. Authors otherwise silenced by their time due to their being non-white and/or non-male. Authors denied the same opportunities as their white, male counterparts. Their stories and experiences would be invaluable to the present-day, heterogeneous classroom, whose pupils place importance on inclusion and historical truth. I only began to see these stories and experiences when I attended a university that prioritizes them. Granted, this prioritization only came around after recent students lamented the lack of diverse voices in the classroom. I take pride in these kinds of waves people my age are making.

It’s easy to poke fun at younger generations. I get it. At times, it’s amusing to see change stirring even in the mere ten years’ age difference between my eldest niece and me. She’s never lived in a world without iPhones, for example. She was not here to experience the infamous classroom switch to SMART Boards. She doesn’t remember a time before Netflix became a streaming service. To my knowledge, she’s never used a VHS tape.

But we should never underestimate the ability and potential of young people. My niece will grow up in a far different world than even the one I’m used to now. I recognize that. In many ways, she already is. She will learn, read, and live accordingly, and I’ll never blame her for doing so.

Her environment will likely evolve in ways I can never imagine. That’s the beauty of it. My generation is revolutionizing the world as we know it—in the realm of reading and otherwise. I look forward to the next one doing the same.