Certainly, the increasing quality of young adult books is a draw. But there are exceptional videogames, there are exceptional websites and exceptional television programs to fight for a teenager’s attention. So why are they still reading?
I think there is another reason why young adult novels are doing well, and it is less easy gauge. As of yet, there are no real studies determining this, but anecdotally, we all relate to it. A book is an opportunity to get “off the grid.” We read to break free of their digital tether. To experience what life was like before the net. To disconnect. To finally feel alone.
A book holds your hand in solitude and says, here you are alone in your room and everything is alright. You don’t need to call a friend or Twitter something. The world is still turning. If you go for a forty minute walk without your mobile, don’t worry, you’re not going to miss anything.
It’s vital to understand that solitude, like silence, have rarely been available to human beings. Try reading Bruce Smith’s extraordinary (though too jargony) account of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England if you’re prone to think of the pre-industrial Western world as a silent one. Especially in cities, the noise — often literally deafening, in areas where blacksmiths and other craftsmen lived — went on twenty-four hours a day; though of course things were quieter in the countryside.
But not more solitary. In country and city alike, whole families slept in single rooms, often sharing those rooms with animals. Only the enormously wealthy could spread out into multiple rooms. (It’s worth remembering that throughout human history the vast majority of couples have had to have sex in the same room, and often in the same bed, with other people.) And all of these noisy and crowded conditions that we see in our studies of the European past are, of course, present-day realities for many people today; perhaps most humans on the planet.
As Diana Webb has recently shown in her new book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space — reviewed here — medieval Europeans in general simply accepted their lack of “personal space,” but others valued it and desired it sufficiently to retreat from the world, as hermits and anchorites, in order to get it. But these were necessarily special cases. Until the nineteenth century in Europe and other economically developed parts of the world, very few people have been able to find either solitude or silence.