Millennials & The Smelly End of Literature

Why do books smell like old people? These words were the Facebook title of an essay for The New Yorker by David Denby entitled “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” In this bitingly cynical piece, Denby describes – in a literary and even phenomenological manner – the most common scene today with youth:

A common sight in malls, in pizza parlors, in Starbucks, and wherever else American teens hang out: three or four kids, hooded, gathered around a table, leaning over like monks or druids, their eyes fastened to the smartphones held in front of them. The phones, converging at the center of the table, come close to touching.

After making this description, Denby turns the eye of his critical consciousness back on himself to take note of how he feels about what he sees.

The teens are making a communion of a sort. Looking at them, you can envy their happiness. You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness—in a superb book or a series of books, in the reading obsession itself! You should probably keep on wishing.

Astonished, he notes that the teens – the youth – are having a kind of communion. He envies them “for their happiness.” But he is torn. The older, wiser part of the critic looks at them and finds something missing: “You can also find yourself wishing them immersed in a different kind of happiness.” This “different kind of happiness” happens when one is “immersed” in a “superb book or a series of books.” But it is not this or that book. No. The happiness that “comes with the reading obsession itself!” is what matters. However, in a moment of comical wakefulness, he realized that his “wish” cannot come true: “you should probably keep on wishing.”

In the rest of the essay, Denby points out that although they read more words than they ever have, teens today read in scraps. They don’t read long passages or finish books. They get distracted by this or that thing.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Things are even worse with the teens. There is noting to envy. Denby tells us that teens are afraid of making eye contact with the other. This, says Denby has created a “loss of self” and a “peculiar boredom” that has been “produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.”

As the article progresses, Denby becomes more and more cynical about the prospect of youth deriving any happiness from reading a text in a deep and close manner. Reading, he says, is a chore for most of them. Millennials find the reading and books to be repulsive.

Denby recalls how he heard a student at Yale say that “books smell like old people.” And this recalls me to a passage in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. In the novel, the main character’s girlfriend, Grace (“Eunice”), a Korean-American millennial, reflects on her older boyfriend, Lenny Abromov’s books. Like him (he is over 40), his books are old and smelly:

Anyway, what kind of freaked me out was that I saw Len reading a book. (No, it didn’t SMELL. He uses Pine-Sol on them.) And I don’t mean scanning a text like we did in Euro Classics with that Chatterhouse of Parma I mean seriously READING. He had this ruler out and he was moving it down the page very slowly and jut like whispering little things to himself, like trying to understand every part of it…..I just stood there and watched him read which lasted for like HALF AN HOUR, and finally he put the book down and I pretended like nothing happened….I thought Ben was really smart because I saw him streaming the Chronicles of Narnia in the café in Rome, but this Tolstoy was a thousand pages long BOOK. (143)

This perspective – parodied by Shteyngart – gives David Denby’s article some fictional flesh. Grace – like Denby’s millennial – thinks books “smell” and can’t understand how anyone can read a book for “HALF AN HOUR” or even read….a “BOOK.” While it doesn’t make sense for her, it does make sense for Denby that millennials find no joy reading literature. It seems that literature is over. Gone. Dead.

Within the article, Denby tries to find some hope, but its not easy. He can’t remain a curmudgeon. That’s not right:

You don’t want to become a crank. After all, reading technologies have changed in the past; television altered consciousness and social patterns sixty years ago, and kids survived and became adults. Literature will survive, too, somehow. Or so we would like to think. (I’m not so sure: the personal gratification provided by constant feedback doesn’t wither as one gets older.) Some of this indifference may be caused by rueful self-acknowledgment on the part of adults. Many of us are looking at screens all the time, too. Even the book lovers, carrying some tome on an airplane, or listening to an audiobook in the car, turn on their phones as soon as they can.

Even though he was witnessed a flourishing of literature and reading in his lifetime, and finds not much to hope for. He avers that his task – of making reading important –   is “awkward, square headed, emotionally difficult.” He feels like a fool when he speaks on behalf of deeper reading.   For Denby, a teaching can do a better job. And perhaps it is the high school teachers who can influence a teen to read “at least for a few vital hours.”

Even though he ends on this positive note, the fact of the matter is that his article – like Gary Shteyngart’s portrayal of Grace’s repulsion of books – is cynical and very uncertain. One of the things he points out, which certifies this cynicism, is the fact that STEM is the new thing in Universities. And it is growing.

The only places left for literature may no longer be in “smelly books.” They may be online. Blogs and magazines like Berfrois, LitHub, The Millions, LARB, 3AM Magazine, etc etc may be the last, most popular spaces for literature and literary criticism of any depth or value which millennials can access the joys of reading.

But, yes, Denby is right. There is a loss. The loss of smell is the appropriate metaphor for this loss because, with smell, comes memory. We see this in Baudelaire, Proust, and even in some mystical books (such as the Zohar). Freud believed the distance from smell was a sign of progress away from the material and animalic. The movement away from materiality and reading is an interesting development because it may take us far away from remembering not only about who we were but who we are. As Freud always noted, we are who we were. Without reading, perhaps we will forget. But no matter what we do – and as every great novelist knows – the smell of death brings reflection and oftentimes a reminder of why we write or think. But, no matter how you look at it, the smelly death of literature hangs over our heads.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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