Currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, David Denby served as a film critic for the magazine from 1998 to 2015. He wrote previously for The Atlantic and for New York magazine. An author of four books, Denby has taken on the subject of education more than once. In 1996, he received acclaim for the best-selling Great Books (Simon & Schuster), which is the story of his return to his alma mater, Columbia University, and his experience of retaking the undergraduate core-humanities classes as an adult.
In his most recent book, Lit Up (Henry Holt and Co.), published in February, Denby heads back to school again, this time to observe the impact of technology on high school students’ reading habits and, more importantly, their ability to think critically and engage with great literature. He argues that because students are constantly consumed by technology, the value and pleasure of reading often fails to take hold.
Sitting in on 10th grade English classes at three public schools—the magnet Beacon School in New York City; James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn.; and Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y.—Denby explores whether teenagers can be plucked from the shallow world of social media and transformed into critical thinkers and serious readers.
Commentary Editorial Intern Alex Lenkei recently interviewed Denby by phone to discuss his new book, technology, and the future of higher literacy.
EW: This is your second book on education. In your introduction, you describe your best-seller Great Books and your emotional investment in education, noting that “the ceremony of teaching and learning charmed and fascinated” you. As a former film critic, where does your interest in education come from, and what critical expertise or insight on this topic can you offer the general reader?
DENBY: Well, I was a movie critic for 45 years professionally. I like going to a big theater and being surrounded by strangers in the dark and all of that. I love being sensuously engulfed, overpowered. But it’s not finally satisfying to me. I don’t think you learn much about yourself, except maybe what you respond to, whereas when I read, I learn a great deal more.
We are surrounded by advertising, by political speech, by illusion, by selling content all the time on television, on the internet, false opinions, true opinions; it’s a whirlwind. And kids, I think, often are overwhelmed by it.
Here’s this person in school who, if he or she is talented, is using an authoritative text, whether it’s Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Kurt Vonnegut, something that’s passed through time, that has held up for a variety of readers and is trying to bring them into a direct relationship with true speech. Mark Twain is telling us things in Huckleberry Finn that are about human nature, about the depravity and the good of human nature. And I like watching kids struggle to position themselves in relation to those texts because what they’re really doing is trying to understand themselves as well.
EW: In the beginning of your book, you describe the three schools you visited and that you learned about Beacon from a history teacher who worked there who essentially came up to you on the street and told you about it. But you don’t go into any detail about how you found the other two schools. Can you briefly describe what drew you to them?
DENBY: Sure, I spent the whole year at Beacon and with the 10th grade English teacher Sean Leon and other teachers as well. But I needed to see something else. I needed a little broader range. I certainly was not going to write a survey. That’s not my temperament, that’s not my training. I’m not an education researcher, but I’m a critic and recorder, and I felt that my curiosity wasn’t satisfied.
In the case of Mamaroneck, I got on the phone with the principal, and she told me they were doing this special kind of program in their English department. They’re still all reading Macbeth and Great Gatsby and so on in 10th grade. But the teachers were also with kids who were grudging readers, asking them and demanding that they choose a book of their own.
I was shocked by it, at first. You don’t think the purpose of school is to ask people to read whatever they feel like reading—young adult novels, sports bios, war stories, whatever—and get people to read what they like, and then get them to read another book. Then of course part two of this process is ladder them up, get them interested. If they’re stuck, say, on horror stuff, you say to them, “Well, you know, there’s this guy Edgar Allen Poe, and there’s this guy Robert Louis Stevenson and Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut.”
What’s depressing in my observation of inner-city kids in New Haven was … they don't have that hunger for information that makes a good student."
EW: You mention anecdotally that students today may actually be reading more words than previous generations—in the form of online essays, articles, and e-books, but also social media and blogs—just not in the form of printed books. How would you characterize this kind of online reading? How much value should we place on it?
DENBY: You probably know there’s been a variety of studies. A professor at San Jose State University, Ziming Liu, did a review of studies that compared print and digital reading and the conclusions were, from his summary, that, on-screen, people tend to read fast or faster. They tend to jump around, to browse, to look for keywords, to jump to the conclusion. In other words, it at times approaches skimming rather than studying or careful reading.
And I can certainly back that up from my own experience. I read a lot of political commentary because we’re in a political season, and I know I jump. I get impatient, and I jump to the point—that kind of thing. It doesn’t (pardon the expression) imprint the way sitting, reading a book or a magazine or newspaper does. I’m normally a slow reader, and when I have a book I go forward, I go back, I take notes.
For more perspectives from prominent education scholars, leaders, and practitioners, please visit:
Now, am I against kids using the Internet? Absolutely not. It’s an amazing tool. It’s fantastic for looking things up, acquainting yourself with the rudiments of a subject, and you can jump from site to site and actually learn quite a lot about anything, and that is extraordinary. What’s depressing in my observation of inner-city kids in New Haven was that they don’t use the Internet that way, they don’t have that hunger for information that makes a good student and is part of being a successful person.
EW: As someone who graduated from college in the last few years and studied literature, I often find myself jumping between engaged reading and social media. In my experience, it’s possible for the two to coexist, so I was struck by your view that technology detracts from serious reading. But might your grandfather have said the same about film or television? That is, could this attitude be generational?
DENBY: No, I don’t think so. You’re ignoring something absolutely essential, which is that you presumably went to a nice high school, and you went to college and you were a literature major. In other words, you already had an appetite for serious work and serious reading or else you wouldn’t have become a literature major. The point is you were awakened, and I was awakened, at some point to serious reading. Therefore the value and the usefulness and the fun of social media falls into a subordinate place, or let’s say, an appropriate place. It doesn’t displace anything, it’s just an added way of communicating. It’s a tool.
What I grew up with—and it was upper-middle class New York, I admit—was the notion that you always had a book going of some sort, that you were always reading something. And you see that now among readers who love literature, love books, love reading. They’ve always got a book going. That has disappeared. Reading has just become one activity among many. And that is going to change the whole culture.
EW: You note early in the book that part of your motivation for writing both Great Books and Lit Up is that you felt “lost in a welter of media images” and saw reading and school as an anchor to help you disconnect from the noise. Did going to these high schools help you overcome that feeling at all?
DENBY: Yes, it did, and I sort of answered part of this already. But I think collectively the whole country is suffering from attention deficit disorder. The speed of information and selling has greatly increased over the last 30 years. It was a major moment when makers of television commercials realized that you could take in the content of a shot in just a couple of seconds or even less. If you look at television commercials in the 50s, they’re amazingly slow. Now, you just look at any television commercial, it’s flash, flash, flash, flash.
I said it before, how exciting movies are, and how I’m engulfed in sensation—and on another level, I get disgusted by it, and I want to slow down. It’s absolutely necessary that we slow consciousness down at times to sort of reconnect with ourselves. So, yes, reading those books with those kids was very necessary to me and important to me.
EW: From what you saw and experienced in the classrooms at the three high schools, what did you see in the teachers that helped them foster a passion for reading in their students? What did the experience do for you personally?
DENBY: The whole premise of the book is that the connection to pleasure is not being forged for many American kids. If you’re lucky enough to have parents who have the time and the ability to read to you, to tell you stories, to ask you questions, there’s a chance that link will be forged. Not everyone is that lucky.
The other way it can be forged is through need. If literature is telling you something with the intent and clarity and truthfulness that nothing else is giving you. Mark Twain is telling you something about human depravity and also about human freedom in Huckleberry Finn that you’re not getting from the Internet. That’s what I was looking for, that’s what 10th grade Beacon English teacher Sean Leon was doing. Sean Leon was confronting his students constantly and asking those existential questions, which might seem naive at another point in their lives. They might be self-deprecating or cruel or funny about it, but it’s not naive when you’re 15. How do you live your life? What do you live for? What kind of person are you? How do you see your future? Where are you going? How do you fit in to this society?
As for my personal experience, I obviously like being a student. I like going back to that part of my life; other people would shudder maybe, but I like learning things. I love listening to anyone who knows something that they can talk about—a carpenter making a bench—I will be fascinated by professional skill. But I also particularly love discourse about literature, I love reading criticism, and I practiced criticism for 45 years about movies. So I need to feel that I’m learning something. Let’s say it’s my addiction.