“I know students read,” says Mathey College Director of Studies Kathleen Crown, who organizes the college’s book group, one of two residential-college book clubs on campus. “I’ve seen it happen.” The group, started by Elyse Graham ’07, offers free books during school breaks — when students might have a few hours to spare — to those who are willing to meet for a discussion afterward. “I think students are really scheduled, and they’re doing productive things all the time,” Crown says. “But it’s hard to schedule time for reading.”
A recent hit in the club was Bumped by Megan McCafferty, a “young-adult” take on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale that attracted 25 to 30 readers, most of them female. Like me, many had read McCafferty’s best-selling series, which, from 2001 to 2009, followed New Jersey teenager Jessica Darling all the way to her mid-20s. Like the Harry Potter series, the writing grew older with the readers.
At Princeton, reading for fun, when it happens, is driven by several factors: interest, of course, but also — a little bit — the desire to keep up with the students around you when someone makes some erudite comment about Nabokov, or at least look like you could. “I’m not reading Proust because I want to know whether Swann’s romance works out,” one straight-talking senior tells me. “I’m reading it because it’s Proust, and it looks good on my coffee table.”
While we haven’t lost the desire to read, the cultural center of our generation has shifted away from books, toward social media, Hollywood, and TV, notes Justin Cahill ’11, an English major who works as an editorial assistant at W.W. Norton & Company. When books dominated the spread of ideas, what people were reading said something about them. Today, the relationship between books and the cultural zeitgeist is less clear because the book faces greater competition.
“We in publishing worry about that,” says Sandy Thatcher ’65, former editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press, who continues to work for several academic publishers. “There have been studies that track generational reading habits, and there are some clear signs that it’s going to be tough times for the book-publishing world.”
The Internet has vastly expanded our cultural options, giving students in Princeton a chance to watch Al Jazeera or read The Guardian. Can contemporary fiction lure readers away from the thousands of options on Netflix and Hulu? Can anything compete with Zooborns.com and its photo galleries of baby cheetahs?
The feeds, streams, and dashboards that deliver customized content straight to our laptops and phones are convenient. But they also mean that we’re all living in our own media bubbles, formed by both taste and algorithms. So there seems to be no single book that bonds my generation in our college years — no book that’s being passed around the eating clubs and dining halls.
“These collective moments that we used to have, that Americans did as a culture — nowadays, those things don’t exist,” says Don Troop, who for the last seven years surveyed college bookstores for the “What They’re Reading on College Campuses” column in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Once in a while, he says, a book still comes along that everyone wants to read — like the Harry Potter books — “but those things are rarer and rarer.” The Chronicle feature fizzled out last spring, after tracking college students’ reading habits for four decades — a reflection both of the fragmented nature of our reading choices and of changes in the bookselling business (with shops closing, college stores increasingly serve nonstudents).
What do Princeton students read when they have time? There are a few perennial trends, because there’s no better place to read This Side of Paradise than in the window of a freshman dorm room. Books that have anything to do with Princeton, a genre that includes novels written by professors and alumni, will keep our interest long after we’ve graduated.
The classics are also top sellers. The cart of $4.95 paperback Oxford classics that sits in front of the Labyrinth bookstore on Nassau Street constantly is being restocked, as are the gem-toned hardcovers, says Virginia Harabin, the store’s general manager. Students often tell shop employees that the books are not required reading, but “just for me.” It’s not unusual to find Moby Dick or One Hundred Years of Solitude on dorm-room bookshelves.
“On campuses, all sorts of people talk about new music. You get ‘cred’ if you say, ‘Hey, I found this new band,’ and they turn out to be great,’” says Seth Fishman ’04, a literary agent. “That doesn’t happen with books in college.”
Instead, you start working on the canon — the books to read before you die, or even better, before you graduate — to be “an educated member of society,” as many students say. There’s a reluctance, several students tell me, to engage with books that aren’t tried and true. “You don’t know what will stand the test of time,” one senior explains. “It’s like, ‘Oh, man, I dedicated myself to reading the collected works of some author and two years later, everyone’s like, who?’ You don’t know who’s going to be the John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald of our time.”
So unless it has been welcomed into the ranks of Established Good Literature, contemporary fiction is less popular on campus. Students I spoke with were reading books such as Middlesex, by Princeton creative writing professor Jeffrey Eugenides; American Pastoral, by Philip Roth; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. All Pulitzer Prize winners. While they’re not classics, they could be, someday. Eugenides’ newest novel, The Marriage Plot, a coming-of-age novel about three Ivy League students navigating love and post-grad life, might seem like bait for the Class of 2012. So I read it, in preparation for this article. But I could find only one other student who had done the same.
Other books that have found an audience here — and at other colleges — typically are aimed at teen readers, such as the Twilight series (about vampires, romance, and the high school prom) and the science-fiction drama The Hunger Games. “A piece of advice to would-be authors: If you want your books to appeal to the college crowd, aim low,” Troop wrote in the Chronicle in May.
“You’re more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg,” wrote Washington Post book critic Ron Charles in March 2009. “Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. ... Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay?” Critics of Charles’ thesis suggest that books topping the list in previous generations — starting with Love Story, the leading book in the Chronicle’s very first survey —– were not exactly intellectual tomes, either.
Popular “young-adult novels,” which typically feature teenage protagonists, are becoming grittier and more appetizing to the college palate, though they don’t offer the rebellious, change-your-life ideas for which Charles waxes nostalgic. As a result, the genre — once geared toward younger teens — has become more appealing to older readers, Fishman says.
There’s another, simpler reason busy college students read young-adult fiction: “It takes less thinking power,” says Maia ten Brink ’13. “And less time,” adds Stephanie Tam ’13.