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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Room of One’s Own

I began teaching my graduate YA materials class last night at Rutgers talking about the changing meanings of Young Adult, coming-of-age, and the literature of that phase of life. Along the way I gave a potted history of YA and as we reached the 1920s talked about the flapper/raccoon-skin-coat/goldfish-eating image of the college student. We spoke about how that was a phase between being a child at home and a settled adult in the world — a phase that would be lowered in age to teenage in the 1950s, after the Depression and the War. But one student made a very interesting point which I had never heard before, and got me thinking. He suggested that one reason why a literature for this in-between phase began to take shape was because, as America families made a bit more money, increasingly a person in that in-between age would have a room of his or her own. The physical privacy made possible a reading privacy, a place to read books by yourself about yourself.

That was really interesting. I am not sure exactly when to place that moment — and obviously it would be different for urban and rural, middle class and poor, black, white, native-born, immigrant — and the various subdivisions of American society. But in broad terms, I bet much of 19th century home reading was in shared spaces — bible as family reading, men retire to the library, women not generally alone. So it is only some time in the 20th century — and for teenagers, I bet during the 1950s as the suburbs developed, that the young person would have a private room, a personal bookshelf. Now of course this is at home — not in the school or library. But it would be interesting to study reading spaces and literature — how does the relative public or private nature of the reading space relate to the reading choices. Of course this has something to do with reading forbidden material — Judy Blume in the 1970s, say. But I am not just thinking of books kids would want to hide from parents. I am also thinking of books that a teenager feels is in some way personal to him or her, which he or she needs to engage in privately.

And that then opens the question about now — where the physical space of the room is opened up by digital connections. That is, the effect of all of our digital contacts is that being physically separate does not mean being out of touch. In effect we keep opening the doors and windows of our rooms ever wider. So what then is the private space of teenage? Or is there one? And if there is not one, how does that — or will that — change teenage reading. If reading is more public, more shared, does that make a different kind of reading more popular? You read to share in what everyone is reading, not to explore who you are? Perhaps popularity was always that way. But the student’s comment on the relationship of rooms to literature is worth exploring. What do you think?


  1. We need a high school English teacher to throw your last paragraph out to a group of kids and see what they say. I wonder even more about teenage writing. In the early 1980s when I was in high school we wrote only for the teacher in school, with few choices of topics. It couldn’t be called public writing because it was essentially between the teacher and the student. Thus, the majority of my writing was private, because I kept a journal, and I wrote in it almost daily for years. When I read those pages now, I’m immersed in the immediacy of those moments in ways that continue to surprise me..that all of those emotions can be packed inside me still, compartmentalized, saved. Teens today seem do much more public writing via Facebook and Twitter, that I wonder if they have time and energy left for private writing. And if so, where they write it and how it is saved. Is the kind of self-reflection and trial-and-error writing not happening because kids are writing in the moment in very public ways instead?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    that is an interesting question — does writing change as it blurs into conversation? and so much of YA literature is, or at least was, a kind of diary — first person expression by an unreliable narrator — does that change as kids (girls) make less use of diaries and more use of digital connections with their friends? Not “dear diary” but “omg bff”?

  3. Very interesting concept. The progress of technology also allowed that private space for what could be considered a YA reader. Electricity and it’s accompanying “gadgets” allowed the teen to have more free time to be able to read. Young people in the 19th century and early 20th century were required to actively work to support the family through chores, farm labor, etc. The physical space of a home itself expanded to hold all these gadgets that made life easier…i.e. electric stoves, refigeration, etc. That technology has now come full circle to include the things that take us back to that open private spaceof previous centuries. Interesting concept.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    exactly — the suburban home, the larger city apartment with the smaller family, gave teenagers the physical space to have private interior space to keep diaries and read YA fiction; now the digital teenager with her devices is constantly networked — part of her extended family which, via facebook, she may never leave even as they move apart physically. So what then is the literature of adolescence — more public, more shared, less interior? or does interior no longer mean private — you don’t share a secret with a diary, book, or best friend that you hope no one will ever learn, instead you broadcast your conflicts to a waiting circle of similarly conflicted bffs, simultaneously confiding and publicizing, becoming your self in transaction not in interior reflection.

  5. Interesting. I got a room of my own in 3rd grade, when we moved to a bigger house. Even back then, I knew that it completely changed my life, even my personality, and definitely how I spent my time. In 6th grade, I’d go into the walk-in closet after I was supposed to be in bed and read…

    My own teenage son has his computer in the living room, along with mine. We hang out online separately, but in the same room. He doesn’t do much in his room except sleep — and read.

    In some ways, being online has a pseudo-privacy of its own. He didn’t mind having his computer in a family area, but he was insistent that the screen not face the room, and doesn’t even like the window open behind him.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    so your son wants both privacy and connection, which seems to be the modern teenage

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    connection and privacy at the same time — perhaps that is the model of the modern teenage, but what will that mean for YA literature?