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?