While lots of bibliophiles rhapsodize about the book that instilled their love of reading, nearly as many reluctant readers can point to the book that turned them off of literature. And for many, that turnoff happened in adolescence.
Writing in the Times, novelist Cathleen Schine tells a somewhat unusual story of readerly ruin. Starting in seventh grade, she developed the rather uncommon problem of reading too much Dostoevsky. Despite the fact that The Idiot was not, as she had first hoped, "a funny book about a stupid person," she "kept going, in my own naïveté, fascinated and absorbing perhaps a tenth of what was there." The problem: "If you spend all your time reading books that you only pretend to understand, year after year, there isn't much room for anything else." Thus Schine exited her teenage years with a bit of Colette and Robbe-Grillet under her belt, but in her own estimation not "well-read."
Of course, the teen who's read Robbe-Grillet is well-read by most standards (also: probably bored). A perhaps more common story is that of the kid who encounters a book she loathes so much that she grows to hate literature — or at least great swaths of it — entirely. After a bad experience with The Scarlet Letter in junior high, a clutch of my friends arrived at high school with a fiery hatred of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and in some cases for reading as a whole. Another batch were turned off by, of all things, The Catcher in the Rye — because our teacher's focus on Salinger's sexual metaphors struck them as overanalytical. Which brings up another important divergence from Schine's story — for many young readers, the death knell of literature comes not so much from the book itself as from the class in which it's taught.
When I (briefly) taught literature, this problem used to keep me up at night. While it's easy to claim that bad teaching is what makes kids give up on reading, I'm not sure it's so simple. Everyone responds to books in different ways, and for every student who loved a given lesson, another looked like she wanted to stab herself in the eye. Part of the problem may simply be that for many kids, a structured classroom setting is one of the few places they encounter books at all. As much as I disliked the one Twilight book I read, I'm a big supporter of the series insofar as it gets kids choosing to pick up a book. Because while a few naturally bookish youngsters may be seduced by Dostoevsky away from the rest of the Western canon, far more have one book "forced" on them in a way they don't care for, and decide that all books suck.
The whole project of "getting kids to read" is fraught with peril for a similar reason — anything offered to kids as medicine is going to taste bitter. And it's hard for teachers or parents or writers or other authority figures to make something seem cool, especially in competition with reality TV and Facebook and every other form of entertainment now competing for kids' time. But it would be nice if we could make an experience like Schine's — she stumbled upon The Idiot in a library — a little more common. Kids don't necessarily have to read Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf — two authors Schine encountered only later, to benefit from reading. They don't have to be "well-read" to be interested in books, and the latter, while less impressive at cocktail parties, is the more consistent source of joy. If schools gave kids a little more freedom to choose books on their own, they might end up with less varied and more idiosyncratic reading resumes — but they'd also be more likely to see new books as potential pleasures, rather than repeats of an already-detested chore.