Advice / all

“Shouldn’t teens, finally to the point where they can comprehend almost any book, be reading more with the vast expanse of possibilities before them,” asks VOX ATL Hunter Buchheit.

Illustration by Hunter Buchheit/VOX ATL

Why Teens Can’t Finish Books, and How to Break the Cycle

by share

When I got home from school a few weeks ago, I ran upstairs, into my bedroom, and straight to the bookcase next to my bed. Seconds later, I was under a stack of blankets – probably too many for the strangely warm winter day – with a book in hand. A few minutes after that, I was scrolling on Instagram. 

We’ve all been there. I want to read; I really do. Then something – my phone, my life, my schedule – gets in the way. Seeing the magnificent bookshelves of my friends and influencers, enshrined with twinkle lights and well loved book spines, only makes the urge to finish a book that much stronger. Sometimes that longing turns to anger – anger towards myself. Why can’t I finish a book? Why is every secondhand paperback or brand-new hardback I buy only half-finished, relegated to decoration instead of a piece of art I have experienced? 

In my earlier years, my love of reading was insatiable. I didn’t have a phone or an iPad, and even when I did, I wasn’t allowed to bring it with me or use it often. So I read. Series after series, sci-fi after sci-fi, classic after classic. I loved going to whatever bookstore we lived closest to, or happened to be visiting, and spend hours flitting through the first few pages of a book, determining whether the story of an electric demigod or a demon clown was more worth my time. 

Then, as I got older, things changed. I read less, scrolled more; the edges of devices became more familiar, the edges of pages less so. Nowadays, reading is something that I need to do instead of something I know I’ll do. And I am not alone. According to a study by the publisher Scholastic published by The Guardian, regular pleasure reading drops almost twenty percent from 6-8 year olds to 15-17 year olds. My decline in reading the past few years isn’t abnormal which is almost reassuring if it weren’t so concerning. 

I began to wonder why there was such a sharp decline as we age. Shouldn’t teens – finally to the point where they can comprehend almost any book – be reading more with the vast expanse of possibilities before them? 

Well, to any current high school or college student, the answer to this question is easy, even grounds for an eye-roll. Most days, teens do not have the time to read. Between school, hours of homework, sports, clubs, volunteering, and the constant battle between having a social life and getting enough sleep, pleasure reading is at the bottom of most teens’ lists. Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri St. Louis, talks about the constant stress teens are put through in her article on the importance of reading in high school classrooms: “I see a teen epidemic of what I call rudderless box checkers. . . These students are joylessly going through the motions, not sure why, except they’ve been told this is what successful (but not necessarily happy) people have to do.” 

Even when teens do have a few spare hours on hand, the motivation to read can be difficult to muster. Calling friends, streaming a popular high school drama, or scrolling social media seem a lot more fun and – let’s face it – take a lot less work. 

When asked why she has a hard time reading, VOX ATL Teen Staffer and Editor Brooklyn Mahari responded with a simple reason: “My phone.” Elaborating, Brooklyn went into her all-too familiar struggles: “I’ll start reading and get semi-engrossed and then put [a book] down and never see it again. It doesn’t give me instant gratification.” She also touched on the constant stress of a high school student, saying, “I don’t give myself enough time to actually sit and enjoy a book like I used to.”

Thinking back to my days spent reading, I realize how content and at ease I felt. Those feelings are foreign to me and my friends now, snatched in small doses during week-long breaks and the occasional empty weekend day. 

A large part of my steady straying from books, I came to realize, was the feeling of calm I experienced while reading them. Stress has become my average state, my source of fuel to keep working even when exhausted. With books, there is none of that; no stress, no deadlines, no commitments – just me, the book, and time. This lack of a driving force, and of an ultimate payoff, makes me feel guilty for taking the time to read. After all, that time could easily be devoted to something else, something more productive! 

But after researching a bit more, I found that my assumption about a lack of payoff was quite wrong. Not only do teens gain immense satisfaction from finishing a book, but they can also reap more subtle benefits in their everyday lives. According to a study published through Sam Houston State University, high school students received in-class benefits from reading. It is important to note that these statistics are based on reading for pleasure, not slogging through a book the day before a required reading assignment is due. On top of improving comprehension and critical thinking skills, taking time for reading improved the grades of students in the study, most notably in math and science courses. This is surprising, but once you think about it makes sense: the ability to draw connections and understand relationships is strengthened by consuming literature. 

Knowing this, it became increasingly obvious to me that reading isn’t a waste of time. In fact, it can only help – from easing the mental health struggles me and so many of my peers face to helping in the classroom and beyond. So what was the next step? Well, re-learning how to read. Re-learning how to occupy the same headspace as eight year old me, though this time getting lost in a world of heroes fighting against capitalist exploitation rather than an evil, magical oligarchy (though the two are still strikingly similar). 

Through a week of trial and error, of doubts and eventual success, I finished an entire 300 page book. Here are a few of the techniques that worked for me.

The first task is, well, finding a book you want to finish. Brooklyn suggested: “Go to a bookstore and actually look through the books and find what interests you!” I did this, and let me tell you –  the feeling of relief when you find a book that seems genuinely exciting is like no other. To aid your search and make sure you pick a book that you will actually finish, set your limits. I know the topics that will bore me, put me to sleep, or make me too upset or frustrated to keep reading. If you don’t know your limits quite yet, test the waters; write down what you do and don’t like. Don’t be afraid to explore – variety is necessary – but taking baby steps towards a new genre may prove easier than one giant leap. 

Making a book your own is one of the best ways to stay invested in a story. I have friends with pouches filled with pencils, pens, sticky notes, tabs, and everything else they may need for their reading. Open their books and it’s like seeing a work of art laid over another work of art. They annotate, write comments, and react to whatever is happening in the book, making sure to take note of their favorite parts so they can go back and re-read them. This is not only a fun way to personalize your experience, but it also boosts the benefits you get from reading. When you are actively engaged, your brain is working to make pathways form connections between you, the book, and the real world. Besides, authors put years of their lives into their pieces; there is often so much more that meets the eye. Putting effort into understanding the intentionality and mastery behind the pages will help you become a stronger analyzer and writer. 

The last technique, and arguably most important, is being comfortable. Create a reading nook in your room, your closet, or any other feasible place you feel drawn to. Put up some lights, get a lamp, and drag in a few blankets and pillows. Play your favorite instrumental music – jazz, lofi, classical – and turn off your devices, or at least put them on silent. Sit back, enjoy, and flip the front cover. Take as much time as you need, and as much as you want. But keep coming back, relishing in the feeling of ease and contentedness that comes with reading. Realize that you are not wasting any time. Quite the opposite, actually: you are strengthening your mind. But most of all you are re-learning; re-learning how to unwind, uninhibited, and fall into a story – just you, a book, and time.

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