“[A] masterpiece . . . Denby is especially astute in describing what it takes to capture teenagers’ attention. . . . [A] wonderful book.” -The Huffington Post
It’s no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don’t read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. Seeing this indifference as a grievous loss, bestselling author and distinguished critic David Denby goes back to high school to answer two questions: Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and with what books? 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 here creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves. 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.
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About the Author
David Denby is the author of Great Books, an acclaimed account of returning to college and reading the Western classics during the curriculum wars; American Sucker, Snark, and Do the Movies Have a Future? He is a staff writer and former film critic for The New Yorker, and his reviews and essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, and New York magazine, among other places. He lives in New York City with his wife, writer Susan Rieger.
Read an Excerpt
One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.
By David Denby
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 David Denby
All rights reserved.
BEACON, SEPTEMBER: THE FIRST DAYS OF ENGLISH 10G
* Everywhere in Chains
* The Beacon School
* Azar Nafisi on the Strengths and Pleasures of Literature
* Themes Are Brought Up
A teacher was speaking.
"As we develop a community here, and I see you thinking about a text, your voice is as important as my voice. What you say is as important as what I say. I'm standing above you. You have to sit there quietly as I fill the receptacle — you. That's how it goes in large parts of the world. That's not how it goes here. Nino, I'm interested in what you have to say about the text, but back up your points with evidence. And when you refer to each other" — he looked at the others — "don't say 'him.' Say Nino."
Nino looked up. He was a handsome boy with curly black hair, a good smile, and large hands. It turned out he was a carpenter, a catcher, and did magic tricks. He liked doing things with his hands. Nino was a nickname. He was Antonio Ferrante, with an Italian American father, a legal proofreader, and a Jewish mother who had been a teacher.
The teacher went on: "When someone is talking, you will look at him or her, because not looking is a lack of respect. I will not tolerate any disrespect. I will push you hard, but I will not disrespect you. Do not disrespect me. I will take it as a personal affront if you are late."
It was the first class of the year, on September 9, at the Beacon School, on West 61st Street in Manhattan, and the teacher, Sean Leon, seemed to know everyone's name. How was that possible? It was an ordinary tenth-grade English class, not an "elective," a special class that students signed up for (Mr. Leon taught such a class in twelfth grade). Their pictures were on the school website, and he may have scanned the faces. Or perhaps he was just very quick. A few minutes earlier, he had gone through the class list and asked the students to introduce themselves. It's possible he remembered the names from one glance. Later he told me, "It's really important to them that you know who they are."
Clear enough. Identity was the first step toward respect and self-respect. A teacher needed to fix a student's identity, for himself, for the entire class. They would know one another and address one another personally. He did some cold-calling, asking students to name other students. Most of them stumbled and guessed wrong. For some reason, no one remembered the name of Lauren, a girl of mixed Latino and Asian background with long dark hair and a soft smile, who was sitting on the side of the room.
In English 10G, there were eighteen girls and fourteen boys — not an unusual breakdown for Beacon or, for that matter, for many American schools. Girls were generally doing better than boys and staying in school longer. In any case, thirty-two students were a lot, I thought, for an English class. They were ethnically mixed and members of every economic class in the city — from poor families in East Harlem and the Lower East Side; from middle-class families in Queens; from such upper-middle-class precincts as Park Slope in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every social class but the rich, who often sent their kids to private schools. At the moment, they were more than a little abashed.
"How are you feeling right now?" he asked.
"Shy and a little nervous."
"Curious and a little excited."
"Anxious, excited — you seem like a great teacher."
"By the way," he said to the Hispanic girl who blurted this out, "I've heard great things about you as well." Had he really? I wondered. There was a pause. "I know I sound like a suck-up," she went on, and he stopped her. "How long have you been in class already?" — "Twenty minutes" — "Okay, I know you, I can read you already. I know you are not a suck-up." — "I'm not," she said.
That's the way English 10G began, with command, with candor, with embarrassment and reassurance. We were to be introduced to the difficulties and ardors of literature. The class would be a cross between boot camp for readers and the anteroom of paradise. Our teacher was a slender man in his late thirties, about five feet ten inches, taut and trim in a pink, long-sleeved shirt rolled up on his forearms, a brown vest, a dark gold tie. He had thinning brown hair, a short, pointed beard. Sean Leon smiled a great deal. His voice was dry, a little hard in tone, penetrating, and he said what he wanted to say, without hesitations or false starts. The accent, however, was hard to place. He had been born in Northern Ireland — a member of the Catholic minority in the city of Derry. His father was an American — a navy guy — his mother Irish, and the family had moved to Louisiana, near New Orleans, where he grew up. But his accent was neutral, certainly not Irish, and I couldn't hear a trace of the American South in it.
Mr. Leon's classroom, room 332, was located on an inner corridor at Beacon. A room without windows, good-sized but closed in on itself. The desks were nothing like the separate oak units with black iron frames, arranged in parallel rows, that I remembered from my own high school decades ago. They weren't really desks at all. They were dark brown rectangular wooden tables, with room for six students, and they could be moved about, arranged into any configuration. At that moment, they were arranged in a squared-off U-shape with an opening in the front. Mr. Leon would step forward into the opening at times, but he was restless, and he moved around to the sides of the room or to the back, standing behind the students as he talked. On the walls of his classroom there were pictures of his favorite writers, including a large poster-photo of Franz Kafka, eyes wide open, looking haunted, as if he had seen a ghost (his own, no doubt). Old student projects hung on one side of the room — collages, mostly, with pieces of cellophane and string, maybe some glitter, all mounted on wooden boards or construction paper. The style was student Chagall — everything seemed upside down, determinedly antirealistic, symbolic. Pop culture and classic-lit references were joined together in mixed tonalities of derision and respect.
Mr. Leon asked the students about their passions. Some played the guitar, some did photography, some played baseball or basketball, some were obsessed with friends and family.
"I'm also passionate about my family," he said. "I'm passionate about teaching. I love what I do. When I come in, I will never not be here. I will bring it every day. I want to laugh because I laugh a lot. I'm a cheeseball. I've been a cheeseball my entire life. I don't take myself too seriously. I take what I do very seriously."
Suddenly, he darted to an empty chair and sprawled out, legs apart. "Whatever, asshole," he said in mock boredom. He addressed us from the chair. "There are times when you're here physically, but you're not really here. You're in la-la land. You think you'd rather be somewhere else. I find that disgusting. I will always be here every day. I'll stay in this damned building until seven if I have to. I will never fail you. I will set the bar high — very high. Anything else would be bullshit. By the way, I don't favor students who just play for the grade, for the A."
They were silent. Some of them, I imagined, wouldn't mind knowing how to play for an A.
He told them what would be expected of them. There would be quizzes on the reading and essays in class. They would keep journals, noting their responses to what they were reading, and they would hand in those journals every week. When he gave them printed versions of stories, he wanted them to take notes right on the printout, and he would read those notes when the students handed the stories back. The school would give them copies of the novels they were reading; they would attach Post-its to the pages with their questions and responses. Again, when they handed the books back, he would read the Post-its. They would be free to say what they wanted, but they would be monitored; at liberty, but judged.
When it came time to write papers, he told them, they would first do an outline and then go through multiple drafts, handing in each draft before the final one. Writing, writing, writing, there would be no end of writing. And talking, too. They would stand on their feet and make presentations in class. Class participation would be graded, but he warned them against raising their hand merely to talk. "How many of you have been in a class in which people simply say the same thing as other people? Cat B says the same shit as Cat A. If that becomes your M.O., it's a problem. Add something! Disagree!"
"Plagiarism is academic suicide," he suddenly announced with a mournful look, as if he had smelled a dead cat.
And then: "What was the theme of last year's reading, in ninth grade? Self-discovery? This year it's the individual and society." He turned and pointed at something he had written on the board:
MAN IS BORN FREE, AND EVERYWHERE HE IS IN CHAINS.
"That's Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Please write it down. I'd like you to talk for about seven minutes to one another about what that might mean."
There was a momentary pause, a few panicky looks, and then, shyly, slowly, they turned toward one another. I was sitting on the side of the room, to Mr. Leon's left, perched on a table laden with books (my rear pushed against Camus's The Stranger and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha). Some of the students had their backs to me, but I could see that at each table one or two did most of the talking. As the conversations started and then sputtered, Mr. Leon walked around the room, crouching now and then at one of the tables, his face at the same level as the students' faces; he asked questions, pulling a few blank-faced kids out of silence. The room volume hit a high buzz and stayed there.
After seven minutes, he led them through a short discussion about authority and conformity. He agreed that he, too, was an authority, that the school was an authority, that they would have to define their freedom all year. And then he summed up: "You are going to read books that make you uncomfortable. I will make it very hard for you to find yourself. I hope you get lost. If a character suffers, don't be afraid to suffer with him. If you're confused by Slaughterhouse-Five, don't be afraid to be confused. I have been, and I've read it many times." And then: "Listen. Finding yourself is not conforming to what others expect of you." This was a Rousseau-like sentiment, a possible plan for action. He wanted to strike off chains.
He turned to the girl whose name no one had remembered. "Lauren, I think you have an awesome presence," he said.
The class was over. They walked out of the room, a little dazed.
* * *
Beacon was started, in 1993, as a small "alternative" high school. The founders, Ruth Lacey and Steve Stoll, two New York City teachers, wanted to create a good public high school on the Upper West Side — there wasn't one, except for LaGuardia, a school for artistically gifted kids a few blocks north of Beacon on Amsterdam Avenue. In American education lingo, Beacon is a magnet school, which means that it draws on the entire city, not just the neighborhood kids, and it has a "screened" (i.e., competitive) admissions policy. Finally, it offers a special focus. To get into Beacon, you have to have good grades and score in the top half of the tests in math and English taken in seventh grade by all New York public school kids (the top half; not the top quarter). You have to submit a "portfolio" — a paper written as schoolwork, and also a statement of personal dedication to technology, the arts, a particular academic subject, or public service. The student gets interviewed at the school by a Beacon teacher. It helps if you can write a report on a science project, design a website, dance a little, sing, play an instrument, take pictures. Beacon has science requirements and labs (it offers courses in immunology and tropical ecology as well as in chemistry, biology, and physics), but it was known informally around the city as a humanities school.
In 2011–12, the year I was at Beacon, the national enrollment in public schools, divided by ethnic groups, was 52 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 16 percent African American, and 5 percent Asian. Beacon's breakdown that year was actually quite similar: 52 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American, and 9 percent Asian. But Beacon's ethnic enrollment was very different from that of New York public high schools as a whole. Overall, the city breakdown was 12 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, 32 percent African American, and 16 percent Asian. Putting it bluntly, from the point of view of an elite New York private school, like Dalton or Horace Mann, Beacon was just another public school. But from the point of view of an ordinary New York public school, Beacon was an elite place.
Charter schools are public institutions financed by public money and sometimes by private money, too. They can hire nonunion teachers, and fire them pretty much at will. Beacon, a magnet, not a charter, was an all-union shop. It belonged to a consortium of thirty schools in New York state whose students were exempt from the Regents exams that other high school students took. In the humanities courses, instead of exams Beacon required, from each student, a stand-and- deliver presentation for a teacher or a panel of teachers — an exposition and defense of a specific topic that was independently researched. The paper was joined to a project of some sort, and the entire effort was called a PBA — a Performance-Based Assessment. As part of the consortium, Beacon gave its teachers considerable freedom to shape their curriculum, and the principal, Ruth Lacey, insisted on that freedom, which was one reason intellectually ambitious teachers wanted to work there. Mr. Leon's tenth-grade reading list, for instance, was his own, not like other tenth-grade lists. He shaped it; Miss Lacy approved it. "Teachers don't leave here. It's a talented staff," she said to me.
By the aughts, Beacon was increasingly popular with students and parents. It was a good school, perhaps a rung below New York's top public high schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Hunter, Brooklyn Tech, and a few others, all of which, however, were far less diverse than Beacon. Virtually everyone graduated, and more than 95 percent of the graduates went to college. They rarely went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, but they went to respected places — small private colleges and the great state universities and the many campuses of the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY). (I have appended at the end of this book a list of where Mr. Leon's students in English 10G went to college.)
* * *
Silence, absolute silence. They were bent over their tables, writing. It was eight in the morning — awfully early, I thought, to be writing anything, much less writing about literature. (Could I write at that hour? I could not.) Many of the other Beacon kids hadn't arrived at school yet, so the building was generally quiet. Yet I could hear, from the hallways, a vagrant laugh or curse, the repeated sound of an overstuffed locker being slammed shut (wham! Wham! WHAM! — that sucker was closed); and, from deep within the building, obscure low rumblings, strange knockings and groans. It was mid-September and still very warm, so the noise couldn't have been a heating system kicking into to life. Air-conditioning, probably. These school buildings had their inner lives and mysteries; they weren't haunted, exactly, but not every sound you heard was strictly accountable.
In the second week with English 10G, Sean Leon drew on some remarks by Azar Nafisi, the author of the wonderful book Reading Lolita in Tehran. In the 1980s, Nafisi, a professor of English literature at Tehran University, became disgusted with the constant monitoring of her academic life by the authorities. She retired in 1995, and then asked some of her former graduate students — women in their twenties and older — to come to her apartment, once a week, and discuss literature. The book, written in English and published in 2003, was an account of a flourishing cabal. Away from men, the women talked over their lives; they discussed Nabokov (Lolita, of all things), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jane Austen, while all around them a reactionary theocratic administration controlled almost everything. Their reading and talking became an act of liberation and self-creation.
Mr. Leon did not tell his class much about Lolita in Tehran, but he had provided for the students — as part of his printed syllabus — some of Nafisi's general ideas about literature. Among them:
A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.
I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.
In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of life, an essential defiance.
Excerpted from Lit Up by David Denby. Copyright © 2016 David Denby. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
BEACON, SEPTEMBER: THE FIRST DAYS OF ENGLISH 10G 1
BEACON, OCTOBER: FAULKNER AND HAWTHORNE 12
BEACON, OCTOBER: SYLVIA PLATH AND CONFESSIONS 29
BEACON, NOVEMBER: NUTS MATTER, AND BOLTS, TOO 35
BEACON, NOVEMBER: HUXLEY 44
BEACON, DECEMBER AND JANUARY: ORWELL 63
MAMARONECK, ALL YEAR: PERSONAL CHOICE 78
BEACON, JANUARY: SATIRE 97
BEACON, FEBRUARY: COELHO AND HESSE 107
BEACON, FEBRUARY: VONNEGUT 120
BEACON, MARCH: VIKTOR E. FRANKL 131
HILLHOUSE: THE YEAR 144
MAMARONECK, SPRING: TENTH-GRADE ENGLISH 178
BEACON, APRIL AND MAY: DOSTOEVSKY 184
BEACON, MAY AND JUNE: SARTRE AND BECKETT 203
Appendix 1: Reading Lists 239
Appendix 2: Beacon Students’ College List 242
Index of Authors and Works 251