As I scrolled through the audio books available for me to download on Overdrive before my long flight to England, one title (and subtitle) caught my attention: Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. by David Denby. How could I resist? David Denby, an American journalist and film critic for The New Yorker magazine, spent an entire academic year observing tenth grade students in an English class of a New York public school. What began as a group of students who hadn’t picked up a book for fun since they were much younger gradually transformed into a bunch of insightful, passionate, enthusiastic readers all before Denby’s own eyes.
Before beginning this book, I thought it would systematically go through each of the twenty-four books mentioned in the subtitle and explain the hows and whys of what it was a great pick. While Denby does structure this account in terms of the books themselves, the discussion is actually much more classroom-driven. Rather than merely focus on the plot and content of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Denby explains how the novels were taught in the classroom and the methods used to help these teenagers connect with texts written decades and decades before they were even born. Over the course of the book the reader gets to know the students as well as the teachers Denby introduces us to, just as he himself did throughout the study. This more personal touch was a pleasant surprise and reminded me of the many anthropology ethnographers I read for a course a few years ago.
So, how did these teachers make unwilling, uninterested teenagers enthusiastic and even passionate about reading? For me, this was actually the most fascinating part of the book rather than the books themselves. When asked why they didn’t read, many of the teens explained that they would rather watch TV, play video games, use their laptops, or listen to music instead of picking up a book. Once it became clear that they were wholly distracted by technology, one of the teachers imposed a ban on technology for varying lengths of time. To be honest, I was skeptical that this would be effective– after all, what teenager (or anyone, really) today would be willing to give up their phone or computer for a mere school assignment? However, I was surprised that this technological detox actually made many students realize just how much they needlessly rely on screens in their every day lives. Some noticed that they were more apt to read or spend time with family and friends without their phone buzzing at all hours of the day.
Other teachers used methods such as making time for small group discussions in class, encouraging independent reading both inside and outside the classroom, and assigning projects for which the students had to read books that they chose based on their own interests. Yet the most effective strategy seemed to be appealing to themes that deeply affected teenagers: independence, loss, love, fear, doubt, a sense of justice, right and wrong, etc. These universal themes can apply to people’s lives in myriad ways, meaning that it’s quite likely that at least some of the students would connect with the novels each time. Reading this book brought me back to some of the English literature classes I’ve experienced over the years– the good, the bad, and the hilarious. I definitely think that more teachers would greatly benefit from reading Denby’s insightful and astute observations.
Overall, Lit Up surprised me with its thought-provoking discussions on what it’s like to be a teenager, how to spark a love of reading in uninterested students, and why studying literature in our modern society remains an incredibly important endeavor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!
What are your thoughts on Lit Up? What kinds of books do you think we should be teaching high school students nowadays? What’s the best way to spark a love of reading in teenagers who haven’t picked up a book for fun since they were younger? Let me know in the comments section below!