The Kids All Write

A new anthology argues that reading and writing still matter

Cars were going to kill culture. Television was going to kill movies. Elvis was going to kill music. And now [insert modern technology here -- video games, TiVo, blogs, you name it] are going to kill literature. People in their 20s and 30s are all too distracted to read, right? We're too busy text messaging each other and managing our iPod playlists.

Kevin Smokler, for one, is tired of hearing that his generation doesn't appreciate books and that books are becoming less relevant to modern culture. In response, the San Francisco writer, speaker, and (as his business card has it) "maker of mischief" has edited a new anthology called Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, a strong (and surprisingly consistent) collection of original essays by young authors. Many of the contributors cover how they came to writing and how they pursue their craft, but they also discuss what books mean to them, how the modern world with its many distractions affects their work, and why they bother stringing words together at all.

Smokler's first contract was for a volume called Generation Text, in which he planned to offer proof that, yes, the kids do still read. But the authors he approached to contribute -- big names like Nick Hornby, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Zadie Smith -- weren't interested, and his editor was dubious about selling a book with "generation" in the title (good instinct). With the help of his agent and some contributors who had already signed on, Smokler refocused the collection on the relevance of books in what Bookmark's cover calls "the age of information overload." The final lineup includes some people whose work Smokler didn't know but who came recommended, and some (about 60 percent) whom he knew personally. Among them are a handful of names you may recognize -- Neal Pollack, Nell Freudenberger, Meghan Daum -- and many you won't. But they delivered what Smokler calls "fantastic work" (I agree).

As Smokler was rewriting his introduction to the newly reformulated collection, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report called "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," one of the most talked-about events in the book world last year. Based on a comparison of Census Bureau data from 2002 to similar data from 1982 and 1992, the survey concluded that "literary reading" (defined as "novels, short stories, poetry or plays") was on the decline (a drop of "10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers") while TV, video game, and online media consumption was rising.

It wasn't the report itself that ticked Smokler off -- he doesn't deny the data or the NEA's conclusion -- but rather the response to it: a collective sigh and shrug. First, while everyone seemed to agree that reading was at risk, no one looked at the huge numbers of young people still interested in it, or offered any ideas to combat what Smokler sees as reading's "enormous image problem." What "stunk up the joint," he wrote in his introduction, was "double-talk that proclaimed us to be living in a new kind of nightmare for American literacy while blaming the same old bogeymen."

The final straw was when his mother sent him a link to a Miami radio talk show on which retirement-age listeners were lamenting how young people don't appreciate books. "If I closed my eyes," he says, "I could see myself at my parents' age hearing [the same talk] about rock 'n' roll. 'It's Elvis Presley and his damned hips.'" The report was just the catalyst he and the book needed.

I met Smokler at the Reverie Cafe in Cole Valley last week to talk about Bookmark, his ideas about culture, and his unlikely career as a literary evangelist. (He's an avid book lover, but like everyone, he's got holes in his reading background that he hopes to plug someday: He's never read Jane Austen or Hamlet, for example.) To his credit, the 31-year-old doesn't look like anyone's definition of a hipster, nor is he a book dork: He's just an average Joe type -- short and stocky, with unfashionably oversized glasses and a new-looking black leather jacket. When he speaks, it's clear that he has led many public discussions and that he's passionate about his subject; his message is honed without being slick, and his clear voice cuts through the noise of the street traffic.

"We sing this song once every generation," he says, talking about the NEA report and its conclusion. "'It's the end of the world as we know it.'" But he doesn't agree that young people aren't reading and writing. As he understands it, there's a "disconnect between what people in the book business see as a literate public and what today's version of a literate public actually is." He doesn't think that old ideas of intellectual conversation suffice: "It's not just, 'Can I quote Camus?'" Rather, young people are engaged in a lot of literary "subconversations" that the book biz -- and the "lit is dead" doomsayers -- are ignoring. As Bookmark outlines, there are more and more ways for our generation to read and relate to words than just "novels, short stories, poetry or plays": in hip hop and spoken word performances, in online diaries and book-focused Web sites, in "the McSweeney's factor" and its concentric circles of publishing, in the "culture of story" that touches everything from TV shows to This American Life on National Public Radio.

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