But not for the reasons you might think.
Here from the National Post is a story of one man’s work with young people, to persuade them to read books that don’t necessarily end up on a movie screen. “Lit Up” is an exciting and special program.
In a book suffused with quotes from everyone from Nietzsche to George R.R. Martin, one of the most telling comes from a 15-year-old student from an underprivileged Connecticut school: “Books smell like old people.” Perhaps I’m just an over-reader, but I think that captures at least two of the most important threads in David Denby’s Lit Up.
The first is the way that Denby clearly wants to mean it: Lit Up is his second book-length exploration of literary culture that was inspired by hand-wringing about those kids today. His first, Great Books, was a response to the then-academic debate about teaching the canon, those hefty tomes that supposedly form the bedrock of “our” culture, or anyway Western literary culture, or anyway white male hegemonic Western literary culture.
Essentially, a rash of post-everything critics had begun to tear down this notion on the grounds of its blinkered and monochromatic view of worth and/or quality — stop me if this sounds at all familiar — and Denby took it upon himself to figure out why we read these works and what worth they might have, via sitting in on an introductory, canon-repping class at Columbia University.
To Denby’s great credit, the intergenerational worry is only a starting point: Great Books is an eminently thoughtful and restlessly curious look at the sort of books that are floating in our cultural ether, referenced but rarely dealt with, and he makes an honest attempt to discover what they have to tell us about life as we live it now, Great White baggage and all.
This is also true of Lit Up. Here the worry about children and literature is much more existential: in an age of infinite screens, is it even possible to convince young people that reading is worthwhile? To that end, Denby spent a year sitting in on three high school English classes — mainly in a Manhattan magnet school full of overachievers, but also in a surprisingly suspect rich white suburban school and a less surprisingly troubled, ethnically diverse inner-city Connecticut one — getting a first-hand blast of the myriad methods teachers are using to convince their students not just that reading can be totes on fleek, baes, but that there are rewards even in books that do not go on to be blockbuster film franchises.
First, some good and maybe obvious news: …
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