College reading -- 03/18/09

Can you remember what you were reading when you were in college? (Or, if you did not attend college, what you were reading when you were that age.)

The reason I bring this up is because of something I read in Higher Education Online
(yes, I know, I'm not a college instructor -- but I used to be an adjunct lecturer in computer science -- and, who knows, after I retire I might become one again -- besides which, I do have a professional interest in some aspects of higher education) -- an essay by Scott McLemee about a recent piece by Washington Post fiction reviewer Ron Charles called "On Campus, Vampires Are Besting the Beats" in which he bemoans the reading habits of today's undergraduates. Recently, various vampire titles by Stephanie Meyers and books about President Obama occupied six of the top ten sales positions at campus bookstores -- the top fiction book was J.K.Rowling's The Tales of Beetle the Bard and the top non-fiction fiction spot was held by Malcom Gladwell's Outliers.

Essentially, Ron Charles compared that to some of the books that were popular with earlier generations of undergrads and says "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. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment."

McLemee counters:
To suppose that things were really that much better in decades past, though, may be the historical equivalent of an optical illusion. I don't know whether anyone was tracking campus bookstore sales in the 1950s or '60s. If so, the record would probably show Peyton Place and Happiness is a Warm Puppy doing pretty well and Diana diPrima's poetry, or Herbert Marcuse's social criticism, not so much. When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981, my first roommate was quite devoted to Jonathan Livingston Seagull while the rest of my dorm was trying to imitate Hunter S. Thompson (in lifestyle, not prose style). The number of young people reading anything serious at any given time tends to be pretty small.

I know that the summer between high school and college I did a lot of reading of non-fiction, mostly Churchill's History of the English Speaking People and H.G. Wells' Outline of History). I think I may also have knocked off a couple of 19th century novels and a bit of poetry, but other than Churchill and Wells I mostly worked and played (which often included consumption of beer). The only television I watched that entire summer was the coverage of Gus Grissom's sub-orbital flight in late July.

I don't recall doing huge amounts of reading during my freshman year. I am only sure about these books: Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers (yeah, the one that was the basis -- loosely -- for that Paul Verhoeven movie about a dozen years ago); Philip Wylie's novel Finnley Wren (I was a big fan of Wylie's writing and I may have also read his non-fiction work An Essay on Morals around that same time); Herman Kahn's massive work on the nature of warfare in the age of thermonuclear weapons: On Thermonuclear War; Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative; and William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. I'm sure I must have read a few lightweight science fiction or detective novels during that time, but I have no memory of any recreational reading (other than Playboy -- but, of course, we only read it for the articles and the short stories
**grin** ).

My sophomore year was a different story. I can name any number of books I read that year. You see, many of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs aged out of copyright protection that year and two different publishers vied in publishing his works in paperback. I was living off-campus with four friends. We bought them all as they appeared and worked our way through them: all ten of the Mars books (A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars, etc.), the Venus books (Pirates of Venus, Lost on Venus, etc.), the Moon books (The Moon Maid, etc.). We never did seem to get into his other series such as his Tarzan books or his Pellucidar (inside the Earth) series. About that same time I got into Ian Flemming's James Bond novels. (And Philip Wylie came out with his nuclear war novel, Triumph.) Oh, and then there were Marvel comics -- the golden age of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (as well as Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes), and Flash, and The Green Lantern, and Ant-Man, and Iron Man, and the X-Men, and Daredevil, and Doctor Strange... Oh yeah, and they were only fifteen cents.

Of course we were living in a different technological age then. My dormitory had three floors. Two hallways lined with rooms went out from a central core that held a lounge (with a television) and the bathrooms. Each of those halls had one telephone on the wall for incoming calls only. There was a pay telephone by the ground floor lobby. When I lived off campus, we didn't have a television (but we did have a telephone on the wall in the kitchen). No telephone in every room (not to mention no cell phones). No television in every room. No VHS, no DVD, no cable. No laptops or desktops. (Just manual typewriters.) No PDAs. No iPods.

Yeah, we actually had time to read books.

Oh, and in the article that prompted this entry... Scott McLemee said he pointed out to Ron Charles some reasons to doubt that everyone read great literature and important works at any other point in history to and he "answered with good humor that hed 'just [been] giving a twist to the Old Man rant about Young People Nowadays,' after all."

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