Next generation lacks literary imagination

When I was a kid, every story I read was as big as the world. People often reminisce over their backyards that spanned continents and decades — and yes, I was definitely that kid on the block who loved to play pretend. But more than anything, I remember the stories I loved — their pages dense with faraway places and lost worlds and filled to the brim with words that stuck to me like drying ink.

Recently, I read an article titled “Literature is dead.” It was written like an obituary, a farewell to an old friend. So many things that once held thriving vitality seem to be dead these days, such as literature and journalism. Some people blame the changes on the prioritization of entertainment; others declare that the Internet is at fault and even more believe that the written word no longer holds any potency.

Sadly, this article was simply the affirmation of a demise of which I was already aware.

A few months ago, my little sister, who is now a spunky seventh-grader, asked me for advice in compiling her summer reading list. She said she wanted a gold star from our local library; she had to log 100 hours of reading and did not want to “waste her time with silly stories about friendly giants or hobbits with hairy feet.”

To gauge her literary interests, I asked her what her favorite stories were when she was younger.

Her response?

She stared back at me with mocking eyes and a smirk foreshadowing those angst-ridden teenage years my mother never wants to relive.

“Tiffany,” she said, “I don’t know. Aren’t they all pretty much the same?”

To this day, I can tell you which stories I loved and worshipped as a kid. These books were the reasons why I was able to see the world from a living room armchair. The Lorax converted me into an environmentalist long before Al Gore got his hands on a PowerPoint, Poppy gave me a ridiculous phobia of owls and who in the world never dabbled in the long-winded literature love affair that is Harry Potter?

I read Ella Enchanted at least a dozen times in elementary school, each reading a little more heartbreaking and wonderful than the last. I went to where the sidewalk ends, stored dreams in jars with a friendly giant and walked two moons. I wanted to live among the wolves, have adventures in a little house on the prairie and turn into animals with just one touch. My library card used to be sacred; I would swipe it carefully with every passing whim, like some do with their credit cards.

What is it that my sister recalls? That’s the thing — she remembers assigned readings and the occasional good story, but more impressive for her are the serialized books with colorful covers. Her favorites are the stories riddled with social drama, the ones that discuss the Upper East Side, the complexities of prep school and the overwhelming temptation of always stealing a best friend’s boyfriend. She will read books that inspire, induce heartache and provoke thought, but then she will turn to Twilight and reread the same sexually infused passages over and over.

That’s not to say that the world has lost all of its influential writers. I want to kiss the hands of Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, Mark Danielewski and Alice Sebold, among many others. Their presence in the literary world proves that the writer — despite the teachings of my sophomore year comparative literature class — is not dead. What has died, however, is this longing for the imaginary, this ability to jump into a jumble of pages and emerge a few hours later exhausted and fulfilled.

A book appears to be such an investment when compared to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube videos and Tumblr entries. But why? Why have we turned away from something that, as children, opened our very minds?

At the end of the summer, my little sister got what she wanted. She billed 100 hours and received a gift certificate to her favorite clothing store. But the loss is hers. Whereas she spends afternoons in air-conditioned, empty bliss, I spent days in Narnia, Hogwarts and the kingdom of Kyrria. She can’t collect dreams in jars with the Big Friendly Giant because, let’s face it — what dreams does she have to collect?

Tiffany Yang is a junior majoring in comparative literature. Her column, “Alphabet Soup,” runs Wednesdays.

3 replies
  1. Eddie
    Eddie says:

    It’s so sad that it’s so true.
    But thanks for writing such a great article! And for reminding us to continue striving to be more than who we are

  2. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    You go girlfriend! Great article. Even though journalism is dead, as you say, writing like yours is what keeps it alive. Tell your sister to stop reading trashy novels and give her a copy of Jane Eyre, my fav.

  3. Richard Meyer
    Richard Meyer says:

    Perhaps it is because I was an English Major @ USC nigh on 30 years ago. Perhaps it was because reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, was a central part of my upbringing. Or, perhaps, it is because my experience with “Generation Next” fully mirrors Ms. Yang’s. What Gen Next faces is not a crisis of intellect but rather one of imagination. If Harry Potter has finally trumped Swift, and “Tweeting” has displaced Eliot; I fear for the Republic. Fight On!

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