Q&A with David Denby, author of "Lit Up"
David Denby will be joining us with Sam Abrams on June 28th - until then enjoy this Q&A with the author of Lit Up.
1. How did you come to write Lit Up?
Five years ago, I was wondering what kids were reading in high school these days (“Lord of the Flies”? “The Scarlet Letter”?), but that question got surpassed by, “Were they reading seriously at all? How would a good teacher turn them on?” Surveys as well as common-place observation let us know that with wonderful exceptions, of course, teenagers are not much drawn to books, that screens are their obsession, and that the way we use words and live is changing with incredible speed. I was thinking about all this in a desultory way when Sam Abrams came up to me on the street and told me about the Beacon School, where he used to teach economics and history. After I checked it out, I wound up embedding in a single tenth-grade English class at Beacon taught by a charismatic teacher named Sean Leon. I read everything the kids read, and created a narrative out of the year’s work: Some of the students to emerge from uncertainty and diffidence into stronger versions of themselves. Mr. Leon read a challenging list including Hawthorne, Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut, Hesse, and Dostoevsky, which forced fifteen-year- olds to ask such “naïve” questions as “What do I live for?” They loved it.
The year after, thinking I needed to see other school populations, I visited an inner-city school in New Haven in which the tenth-graders, at the beginning of the year, were not eager to read at all. A funny tough teacher named Jessica Zelenski roused them out of indifference and got them reading a book of their own choosing by the end of the year. Finally, at a good suburban school, Mamaroneck, the English faculty coaxed the grudging and non-readers out of their funk by, initially, letting them read whatever they wanted (as well as the core readings). What I’ve done is to offer three different ways that teenagers can be turned into readers. As for the rest of their lives? Who knows? But we need them as readers for the future of literature, citizenship, not to mention such wonderful places as Book Culture.
2. What are you currently reading?
Classics like Emma, Middlemarch, Death in Venice, Brideshead Revisited, Goodbye to All That, Bellow and Roth. New stuff like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Elena Ferrrante Neapolitan quartet. Books on education and poverty and motivation like Paul Tough’s Helping Children Succeed and Angela Duckworth’s Grit.
3. Do you have a personal favorite book of all time? If so, can you share it and tell us why?
I guess it’s Anna Karenina, which is probably true for many people. It offers the fullest embrace of life in its personal, social, and spiritual aspects, all brought together in a narrative in which the most intimate details sustain the grand narrative. I alss love The Portrait of a Lady.
4. Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to the publication of?
The new novel by my ex (Cathleen Schine), They Don’t Mean To, But They Do is just coming out. I’m midway through it, and it’s her best.
5. What’s next? Any upcoming book projects in the works that you can tell us about?
I’m interested in secular Jews in America. By that I mean people like myself, who are intensely Jewish in their culture and temperament but are not particularly religious in the doctrinal sense. I’m not sure how this project will take shape—just reading and mulling it over at the moment.
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.
He will be joining us, with Sam Abrams, for an event June 28th at Book Culture on Columbus.
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