Every high school English teacher knows that to control the classroom you must earn your students' respect, a difficult task when part of your job is frowning at giggles induced by the term "dangling participle." As a young teacher who occasionally swears in class, though, I figured I was safely entrenched in the "cool" zone. Or so I thought.
I recently ran into one of my students, who, I was relieved to see, seemed ecstatic to see me. "Mr. Kester, I read your book. You're a huge loser!"
It wasn't exactly a good sign for either my teaching or writing careers, and frankly my self-esteem could have done without being called a loser by a 15-year-old with a case of the sniffles. But I couldn't have been happier. This was exactly what I wanted to hear from him.
The literary world has lost the teenage boy. When school begins in the fall and I ask my students who read a book this summer, only a few male hands will reach skyward. I'll be ostensibly upset because there was a summer reading assignment, but deep down I'll somewhat understand.
I read all the time in my youth, but that's because there was only so much stimulation a young man could get from saving a princess with a mustached Italian plumber. Today's teenage boy, on the other hand, has an unlimited menu of electrifying entertainment for their instant gratification: Movies and video games so pulse-poundingly crystalline that they come with epilepsy warnings. Facebook newsfeeds saying Your Crush has added the album "WET HOT SUMMER 2012!!!" Clever musings delivered in 140 characters from friends and celebrities. And let's not forget the curtained-off section of the Internet, where not much happens other than the fulfillment of every teenage desire. But here, try this inanimate hardbound hunk of 10-point font!
The reason why teenage boys stopped reading is plainly evident. It's the question of getting them back that presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge for parents, teachers, authors, and publishers alike. But there is a solution, and it is found within the adolescent male's Bible, a book that, despite its age, has survived the transition to our HD culture.
J.D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye hasn't reached cult status among teenage boys because Holden swears on like, every other page. And, believe it or not, it isn't popular because a prostitute enters the picture Chapter 13. It's the fact that the prostitute leaves Holden in the lonely hotel room, services unrendered, that makes Catcher in the Rye the pinnacle of adolescent male literature.
At the end of movies, the witty, six-packed hero gets the girl. At the end of video games, the warrior defeats the enemy. Holden's failure to consummate this now famous sexual encounter, and his general inability to escape the nebulous limbo that agonizes his life, is a major departure from contemporary entertainment. But it's the most relatable.
Let's be honest: every teenage boy is a loser. Even the cool ones. And they are painfully self-aware of this awkwardness that is inherent in their transitional phase of life. When faced with a danger, a girl, or the unknown, they feel scared. They feel embarrassed. They may emulate Batman, but they feel like Holden.
And therein lies the major advantage books have over any other form of entertainment: the ability to relate and connect with one's innermost thoughts -even the notoriously tangled, vague, and suppressed emotions of the teenage boy. Authors can try to lure in the adolescent male by packing their stories with explosions and sex, but they'll never compete with movies and video games. The battle can only be won through tapping into the reservoir of self-doubt and confusion that every teenage boy is trying to reconcile. And believe me, that reservoir is vast.
It remains unclear why my student read my memoir on college life and thought "huge loser." Maybe he can't understand why someone would waste so much time writing a book when there's such a thing as Movies OnDemand. But then again maybe he connected emotionally to my candid exploration of how I felt when I was 19, which he summed up perfectly in those two words that he spoke with a broad smile.
After all, the only cure to the anxiety of adolescence is the knowledge that you're not alone. The best vehicle for this message is through books, a point that Salinger understood better than anyone: "Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now," he writes to Holden and every teenage boy. "Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them -- if you want to."
Eric Kester is the author of That Book About Harvard: Surviving the World's Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time.
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