“Together and alone, we need literature as the California valleys need rain,” muses David Denby, author of Great Books (1996) and staff writer for The New Yorker. But, he wondered, in an age of texting and tweeting, are teens still reading complex literary works? And can an appetite for serious reading be developed in high school?
To find out, Denby decided to return to school himself, exploring 10th-grade classrooms and the reading habits of 15-year-olds. Denby opted for a subjective, arbitrary approach, spending the 2011-2012 academic year observing teacher Sean Leon’s class at The Beacon School, an alternative high school in Manhattan; the following year he visited classes in two other public high schools. As Denby glances at a student’s essay draft at the beginning of the year in Leon’s class, he can’t help but think that Leon had “his work cut out for him. They all did, the English teachers of America.”
Denby is an engaging writer and a keen spectator: The teachers and students he observes spring off the page as real people. He also explores the books along with the students themselves. (If you hated The Scarlet Letter in high school, here’s your chance to revisit it.)
Like many of the teens around him, Denby himself isn’t always on the same page as the teacher who’s asking for total engagement with, say, Dostoevsky at 8:00 in the morning. “I couldn’t believe I was even there. At that moment, I couldn’t handle The Sound of Music.” Yet, he comes to realize, many of the students are juggling not only multiple classes but part-time jobs and challenging home situations.
Denby gives us a dramatic, fascinating look at teachers and students struggling, questioning and growing together. Lit Up is a testament to the power of extraordinary teachers and the willingness of young people to engage—not just with books, but with the serious business of becoming adults.