My four-year-old already has established reading as part of his life – even if he spends more time looking at the pictures than pouring over words. But he sits there before bed, with his penguin flashlight, flipping through pages; content. Immersed.
I love this, and I hope this draw toward a good book only grows in him. But what will happen when he is a teenager? When our society’s slant toward technology seeping into every nook (no pun intended) and cranny of our lives has continued for another decade? Will reading a good book still delight him and engage his curiosity, or will it be too hard to be disconnected from the real world?
Reading is important to me, and the questions I’ve just asked have honestly haunted me. A love of reading in a kid lends to deeper empathy, richer vocabulary, better learning retention, and so much more. It contributes to discipline, how boredom is handled, and it can even open career doors and life opportunities. I want that for my kids. Who doesn’t?
I’m writing this little blog post to tell you how I caught a glimmer of hope amid all the Snapchats, tweets, and selfies. It was in February, 2016, when I heard an interview on NPR with David Denby, author of Lit Up. The subtitle of his book is pretty self-explanatory: “One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books than Can Change Lives.” Denby visited and engaged with English classes in three different high schools, wondering how much kids really are reading, how much they’re enjoying it, and what their teachers are doing right.
“Electronic utopians say, ‘Calm down, nothing has been lost. If anything, the opportunities for reading have become much greater. Plenty of books are being sold, and even if books as physical objects are doomed, reading will survive, even expand. After all, you can get anything.’ In the literal sense, this is true. You can find almost any book you want somewhere. Those who know what they are looking for can find it on a computer, a Kindle, Nook, iPad, tablet, or smartphone; the electronic library goes on forever, and the volumes will not get moldy. What technological utopians don’t and can’t explain, however, is this: How does the appetite for serious reading get created in the first place? A baby held in happy attention to books and stories has a good chance of loving reading as an adult. What about the others?”
Denby seeks to answer the question in bold above (my emphasis) in the rest of his journey. He discovers passionate teachers who are inspiring thoughtful and curious students – not just students, but book-lovers. He started at a school in New York which he found to be extraordinary:
“Beacon’s Sean Leon had an unusual reading list—existential classics, including Huxley, Orwell, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Beckett, but not Twain, Dickens, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, or even Shakespeare. He grabbed his students by the throats and shook them into life. He challenged them constantly, asking them to define themselves and take hold of their lives. He was clearly trying to shape character with the books he assigned, the discussions he led. Other teachers could perhaps learn from parts of what he did, perhaps use parts of it, but they couldn’t replicate the entire experience. They couldn’t be him. And certainly no one could say that his was the only way to talk to teenagers. There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.”
Because of this unusual literary approach, Denby sought out two other schools, faithfully engaging in the English classes in the same manner, reading the assignments in full and engaging with the students themselves. He asks tough questions of the students, and his readers. He really is diving into the subject like there is a real “reading crisis” on our hands. And maybe there is.
I commend the NPR interview to you, which can be found here. I am going to dive into Denby’s Lit Up more deeply in the coming month or two, and I would love it if you would join me. Post your thoughts in the comments, or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear from you!