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!