Lit Up — Thoughts on Teenagers and Reading

Together and alone, we need literature as California valleys need rain.
David Denby, Lit Up

9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddBack in the 1980s, film critic David Denby wondered “how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book”. The controversy at the time, which continues to this day, was how we define a “good book” and whether the traditional Western classics are relevant in our multicultural society.  The 48-year-old Denby returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, and spent a full academic year studying the Western canon. He wrote a book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Indestructible Writers of the Western World, about how the experience reinvigorated his intellectual life.

Denby describes his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives, as a “prequel” to Great Books. He spent an academic year (2011-12) in sophomore English classrooms at the Beacon School, a  magnet school in Manhattan, and another year (2013-14) in English classrooms at two other public schools — Mamaroneck High School, in a wealthy New York suburb, and James Hillhouse High School, in inner-city New Haven, Connecticut. He wanted to learn:

How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers — and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?

Denby’s time in the classroom with some unusually gifted and devoted teachers — who are passionate readers themselves — shows that it is possible to transform reluctant or even hostile readers into engaged and curious readers. But it’s an uphill battle, and even more difficult for students who lack the context or vocabulary to understand what they’re attempting to read. If students don’t know when or why the Civil War was fought, they’re not going to connect to The Red Badge of Courage. If they don’t know what the Holocaust was, they’re not going to make any sense of Elie Wiesel’s Night.

The teachers Denby introduces in Lit Up have the difficult, nearly impossible job of getting students to read the assigned texts and of helping students find books outside of the required reading that they will enjoy and relate to on a personal level. Both Denby and the teachers acknowledge that the way to get kids to read is to get them first to read anything they like: “Get them started as readers by giving them books they could easily enjoy, including young adult novels; get them caught up in narratives, stories, outcomes.”

As a bookseller, I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly. As Ann Patchett said, “I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.” I’ve always been a bit mystified by parents who are overly concerned about the content in their children’s reading material. If your third grader who struggles with reading loves Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones, who cares? They’re developing a habit of reading and enjoyment of the written word. And anyway, do you want the reading police ticketing you for reading Us Weekly?

The problem is that these teachers know, just as all avid readers know, that one of the greatest benefits of reading is to develop an understanding of the wider world and the people in it. Reading isn’t just about holding a mirror up to ourselves and validating what we already think and feel. The teachers we come to know and admire in Lit Up work hard, with more success than I would have anticipated, to get kids to read challenging books that open their eyes to people and experiences far beyond the limited scope of their lives.

Jessica Zelinski, who teaches sophomore English at Hillhouse High School, the worst-performing public school in New Haven, regularly organizes a classroom event called a “Read Around”. She chooses several books she thinks will interest her students, and brings multiple copies to class, encouraging every student to sample each book.  One of the students, who initially looked at Ishmael Beah’s devastating memoir of his years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, and said, “This doesn’t interest me,” ends up reading the book with great interest — and, through the efforts of Miss Zelinski, meeting the author at a nearby college. Miss Zelinski, who feels that the Hillhouse curriculum often condescends to the students by not expecting much from them, says to the author, “Maybe they’ll enjoy life more, if I can get them reading. I would like to nurture in them the idea that there are other worlds.”

I was so fascinated by Denby’s stories about the students and teachers he came to know that I read this book in just one day. It’s a very personal account, not a sociological treatise. Denby says of the students he observed:

I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of ‘judging’, always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born — what happens when a non-reader becomes a reader? — which meant necessarily recording the students’ mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life.

americangirlsimageI read this book just after I finished another book about American teenagers, American Girls: The Secret Lives of American Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales, which is truly one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. If Sales is to be believed — and I hope with all my heart she’s not — the lives of most teenage girls revolve around taking pictures of themselves and posting them online, hoping for validation. In this book, physical appearance is everything, the search for male approval is paramount, and feminism is completely dead. A recent Wall Street Journal review said: “The secret life of teenagers sometimes seems entirely a response to nude pictures and requests for them—a response, that is, to male adolescent desire, as it shows up digitally. But female vanity is also at play.”

I wish the teenagers (both boys and girls) in American Girls had teachers like Sean Leon, Mary Beth Jordan, Jessica Zelinski, Mary Whittemore, and Daniel Guralnik, who would introduce them to inspiring books that would help them develop into empathetic people.  At the very least, they should consider the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one novel I’m certain every high school student is required to read:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.