Thursday, November 03, 2016

Book 'Em

Some years ago, film critic David Denby wrote Great Books, his tale of returning to his alma mater, Columbia, and rereading the classics.  Now he's back with a sequel of sorts, Lit Up, except instead of college, he sits in on high school courses to see how they handle literature.  The book is shorter than Great Books, and somewhat lighter in tone, but no less passionate.

Denby first goes to Beacon, a magnet school in New York City, and spends a year in a tenth-grade class that makes a lot of demands on its students.  Most of Lit Up deals with Denby's time at Beacon, but to fill out his experience, he sits in on tenth-grade literature classes at an inner-city school and a more well-off school.

The teachers come across as crusaders for literature.  But the biggest hurdle is how to get students to read as a way of life, not as an assignment.  They're fifteen, and most don't have the habit--these teachers have the chance to change their lives.  And the teachers don't accept reading bits and pieces on screens as a substitute for sitting down and getting involved in a good book.  Especially Sean Leon at Beacon.  He gets the most comprehensive profile in Lit Up, and often challenges his students regarding their media-glutted world, believing they're being cheated out of a deeper experience.

Most of what the kids read are classics, but not necessarily easy, or, for that matter, life-affirming.  The teachers want to get them involved, not teach them pat moral lessons.  Indeed, one thing common to most tenth-graders is they feel oppressed--no matter what their social station, they want to do what they want to do, but are required to follow a lot of rules they don't appreciate--so darker work can speak to them.

The schools take somewhat different approaches.  One school let's the students read whatever they want at first, hoping they'll work their way up to better literature.  Another starts with easier stuff before moving on to more complex material.  But Sean Leon has no trouble starting them out with difficult and even harsh material. It's important to Leon that he design the course--he doesn't want to just teach to the standardized tests. One of the first things his students read is "The Minister's Black Veil" by Hawthorne, with its contemplation of evil. (If you haven't read these works, Denby gives helpful summaries, though I did catch at least one minor error, which troubled me.)

Later they read the dystopian classics Brave New World and 1984.  After that, Herman Hesse's work about searching for the meaning of life, Siddhartha.  Then Kurt Vonnegut's darkly comic novel about World War II, Slaughterhouse-Five.  Leon never quite lightens it up.  By the end, they read some pretty complex--and bleak--material, including Dostoevsky's Notes From The Underground and Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

It might seem like too much for fifteen-year-olds, but Leon believes they can handle it.  While the students are sometimes bewildered, Denby notes many of the wise words they utter.  Leon uses the books to teach about good writing--this is partly a class about learning to write, and the students are required to turn in many assignments--but just as much he wants to discuss the issues these works raise.  The students at first may have trouble getting involved, but by the end of the course, with Leon's provocative questioning, they are changed.  Or at least seem to be.

Denby also seemed to be changed by the experience. You might want to pick it up. It's an easy read, and you may also be changed.


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