One of David Denby’s recent New Yorker pieces, no doubt spawned from his newest book, Lit Up, lamented the decline of “serious reading” among teens. Elizabeth Minkel, in The Guardian, called the essay “stuffy,” and I mostly agree.
I recently got the chance to talk with Denby, a New Yorker staff writer since 1998, about Lit Up and reading in the digital age. A film critic for decades for the New Yorker and New York magazine, Denby has written two books on education. His first book on the subject was the 1996 best-seller Great Books, a chronicle of the writer’s return to his alma mater, Columbia University, to learn about the curriculum wars of the 1990s. In Lit Up, Denby sits in on three high school English classes in the New York City area to get a closer read on how technology affects students’ ability to focus on—and find joy in—books.
In my interview, I asked Denby about his choice of high schools, the value of online reading, and whether the experience of returning to the classroom helped him escape the overwhelming “welter” of media images swimming around in his head. The interview also gave me a chance to hear a vastly different perspective since, to put it bluntly, Denby and I come from two completely different worlds.
Born half a century apart, we naturally have different cultural, social, and even literary views. For instance, Denby inherits his notion of “serious reading,” a phrase he uses throughout his book, from the literature of the Western canon. Think Homer, Jane Austen, and William Faulkner. Today though, many young people tend to ignore the distinctions between high and low literature, instead opting to read Jane Austen alongside Harry Potter fan-fiction, as Minkel notes. And I, in my twenties, am no exception: While I don’t usually read fan-fiction, one can find YA best-sellers on my shelves alongside a number of the classics. I’m deeply familiar with and love reading the authors Denby mentions but find little value in privileging a canon that is predominantly white, male, and European. Most teens realize that the canon functions as a literary gatekeeper, largely excluding voices of color and women as well as those from other genres, and they adjust their reading habits accordingly.
On the other hand, I share Denby’s concerns that screens are commanding our attention at a younger and younger age and that we can be easily distracted when reading online. As both a former English major and avid social-media user, I find myself somewhere in the middle between Denby and Minkel. So, are teens all right without the “Denby-approved” classics? This reader thinks so.
Photo: Macmillan Publishers
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.