May 15, 2014

Frank Bruni is your worst uncle


Sundays in the park with Uncle Frank. Image via Shutterstock.

Sundays in the park with Uncle Frank. Image via Shutterstock.

What kind of uncle or aunt are you? Are you the fun one? Or are you Frank Bruni? Because now we all know exactly what Frank Bruni is like as an uncle, from an op-ed Bruni wrote in the New York Times about new stats that show that American children (“America’s promise,” I prefer to call them) are reading for pleasure significantly less today than they did 30 years ago. These statistics come from an organization called Common Sense Media (already I see a problem here), on whose website they are entirely objectively presented under the heading “4 Alarming Findings About Kids’ And Teens’ Reading.”

Bruni’s op-ed, “Read, Kids, Read,” which ran on Monday, begins with a tour-de-force of humblebraggery: he starts things off by claiming that he’s a bad uncle about a lot of things, like remembering his nieces’ and nephews’  birthdays (Birthdays, pffft! Children don’t care about those!) or showing up to their theatrical performances.

But he makes up for all this, cosmically, by being really really diligent about one part of unclehood: harassing the kids about what they’re reading. And why they’re not reading more of it. He is “steady,” “relentless,” “incessantly asking my nephews and nieces what they’re reading,” “reliably hurling novels at them.”

Because paying money for books, Bruni tells us, is not something he ever regrets. As opposed to alienating his relatives by badgering their offspring. No regrets at all there.

Of course, he’s just doing his part in a larger struggle. Not the struggle to persuade children that reading is a pleasurable activity, mind you. Because why would you do that? No, children should read more because it is good for their brains, and also it is good for society. And apparently, “there’s research on this.” Well, you could have knocked me down with a copy of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

Ah yes, this research. You know this research, I know this research, and let me add that it’s not that I don’t believe this research, which periodically discovers that people who read more are more intelligent, empathetic, and better-looking. It’s that I think this research — and maybe especially the way this research is interpreted by the media — isn’t the point. It feeds into a teleological view of human behavior, with a tendency to empty out actual experience. It seems blind to its own potential fallacies. It seems blind to the internet, where I suspect a lot of children are doing a lot of reading, but of course in different ways than in the past.

But ok, you’ll say, Frank Bruni gets that. His further reasons for pushing books on his nieces and nephews and children he’s not even vaguely related to are not all about intellectual and emotional weight-lifting, but also about the value of slowness and quiet in a dizzy age, the value of staying with one thing over many hours (a capability Will Self also thinks we’re losing faster than our feathers).

Sure, those things are important. Life for a kid these days is frenetic, full of gifs and memes and listicles and tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos. Who can keep up? Everyone needs a break sometimes. And there’s nothing like shutting off the devices to go lie down on your bed for a bit and mull things over, stare at the ceiling, listen to trucks going by, think about summer. Until your uncle comes into the room and asks you why you haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars yet. It’s a really great book, Jayden. You’d like it.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.