Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby

We bookish types tend to do a lot of hand wringing about the future of reading. I have read two such pieces lately by David Denby – a New Yorker article titled, “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” and his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives.  In both cases, his premise is that the kids are definitely not alright.

Their problem, Denby claims, is technology. Kids’ desire to be tethered to a device 24/7 has put a tragic dent in what he calls “serious reading.” He’s on a bit of a slippery slope, because he’s really talking about The Canon, with maybe several notable works by writers of color sprinkled in (e.g. Ellison). He contends that the Canon provides opportunities for serious reading, because those works provide complicated moral questions that young people should be considering. They’re “hard,” because life’s questions are hard. And they take determination and time and a willingness to focus for longer than it requires to “like” your best friend’s selfie.

In Lit Up, he looks at three schools, following some terrific high school English teachers as they teach “serious books.” He spends most of his time at a selective school in Manhattan, but adds on some briefer descriptions of teaching at an affluent suburban school and a urban school that serves low income students. His takeaway is that the kind of reading and thinking he worries about IS possible with deep commitment. His book is supposed to be a feel-good exploration, and he almost succeeds.

However, Denby has this way of coming off as an old man who screams, “Get off my lawn!” at neighborhood hooligans. He might be right that technology changes attention spans or that it changes how and where and when people read. But anchoring a discussion of reading in this way feels like a “remember the good old days” argument, the kind that never excites or motivates or persuades young people to listen.

I think there’s another (better) argument to be made. Denby’s focus is on good teachers, ones who meet kids where they’re at and pull them to more sophisticated places. The teachers he profiles use books to motivate and inspire and push and encourage. A more meaningful question might be why many kids don’t get this kind of opportunity. My guess is that it’s not a lack of special English teachers; rather, it’s a policy focus that stresses “proficiency” in “skills” rather than meaningful engagement with big ideas. In other words, who cares what kids read as long as they can perform well on a Common Core exam?

And if that’s the case, it might be more politically purposeful to stop barking about the pesky internet and start instead pushing for an educational shift. The kids might just join you in that!

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Monday! And I'm Back At It!

Well, hello.

It turns out that I took a three month hiatus from my blog. I can’t really explain it. It started with a struggle to find a good book to read, and then that struggle spread into writing. Suddenly, I couldn’t put words to paper. Thinking about the blog made me feel badly, and reading everyone else’s blogs made me feel even worse.

So I un-blogged for a while, but the need to start again has been tormenting me like an itch on the bottom of my foot. I can’t ignore it any more.

Here’s a list of some of the things I read during my hiatus. There are no reviews up for any of these, and there might never be. I do hope to go back and discuss them, but I’m also wary of getting stuck in the past.

Stoner by John Edward Williams (a character portrait of an academic that I liked more than I thought I would!)

Golden Age by Jane Smiley (I eagerly read this last book in the trilogy but felt it needed momentum and suspense, just like the others)

Class Reunion by Rona Jaffe (read this and loved it in high school; now I think it’s terrible)

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (compelling YA that works well for adult readers)

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson (compelling YA that drips with adolescent angst)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (shockingly entertaining given how little I enjoy Jane Austen. It’s a modern re-do of Pride and Prejudice)

How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims (this would be a great book to discuss with other parents, assuming everyone is willing to be self-reflective)

Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman (the charming quality of A Man Called Ove turns sticky sweet in this one)

Happy Family by Tracy Barone (deeply depressing subject matter but such engaging writing)

In the spirit of moving forward, here’s what I’m reading right now:

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

And after that, I’ll be reading Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

I’ve missed you all! Thanks for sticking with me.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)