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Lit Up
Cover of Lit Up
Lit Up
One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives.
Borrow Borrow Borrow

A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives

It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing as a great nation—and a personal loss, too, for millions of teenagers who may turn into adults with limited understanding of themselves and the world.

Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

A bestselling author and distinguished critic goes back to high school to find out whether books can shape lives

It's no secret that millions of American teenagers, caught up in social media, television, movies, and games, don't read seriously-they associate sustained reading with duty or work, not with pleasure. This indifference has become a grievous loss to our standing as a great nation—and a personal loss, too, for millions of teenagers who may turn into adults with limited understanding of themselves and the world.

Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

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About the Author-
  • 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.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 9, 2015
    New Yorker staff writer Denby follows up Great Books, his 1996 account of taking an English class at Columbia University during the curriculum wars, with this energetic and engaged, if less than comprehensive, report on reading among modern-day teenagers. He observes three 10th-grade English classes in three different kinds of high schools: the demanding Beacon School on New York’s Upper West Side; Hillhouse High School, in inner-city New Haven, Conn.; and Mamaroneck High School, in Westchester County. In 2011–2012, Denby sat in on a Beacon class, watching a passionate teacher named Sean Leon lead his class through discussions of classics such as Brave New World, Siddhartha, and Slaughterhouse-Five. During the following academic year, Denby periodically visited Hillhouse and Mamaroneck. At the latter, he meets Margaret Groninger, who teaches contemporary literature and uses “laddering”: letting students select their own reading outside class while also encouraging them to read “better” books. Based on these examples, Denby states that “passionate commitment in teachers” can “pull away from screens and social networking—at least for a while—and pull them into enjoyment of reading.” The sample size of his informal survey is so small, however, that this conclusion, while inspiring and hopeful, comes across as foregone. Agent: Kathy Robbins, the Robbins Office.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2015
    Teenagers encounter great books and dedicated teachers. New Yorker staffer Denby (Do the Movies Have a Future?, 2012, etc.) believes ardently that reading affords pleasure, "an opening to a wider life," and enhanced "understanding of other people and oneself." He wondered, though, whether reading will survive for children inundated with increasing technology. Will they stop texting and read a book? How, he asks, "does the appetite for serious reading get created?" The author decided to investigate by sitting in on a 10th-grade English class at Beacon, a magnet school in Manhattan. After a year of attending classes and reading all the assigned material, he expanded his project by visiting two other public high schools: the inner-city James Hillhouse High School in New Haven and the suburban Mamaroneck High School in Westchester. Beacon, though, and in particular the class taught by energetic, 30-year-old Sean Leon, is Denby's central focus. Admission to Beacon is competitive, based on grades, a portfolio of schoolwork, and an interview. With students motivated to excel and teachers free to shape their own curriculum, it's hardly surprising that Denby came away impressed--and he ably conveys his enthusiasm to readers. In the two other schools as well, though, the author found that by teaching "aggressively and flexibly, with humor and dramatic power," teachers can generate students' passion for reading. He sees students taught to read actively: responding to readings through journals, annotations, marked-up copies of texts--all of which the teacher reads, comments on, and sometimes grades. At Mamaroneck, a "get-them-reading strategy" requires students to keep a yearlong journal of independent reading, including romance fiction and graphic novels. At Hillhouse, where many students struggle, Denby witnessed a fiery conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird deftly handled by an encouraging, but tough, teacher. An upbeat portrait of fine teachers and the students they inspire.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2015
    As he recounted in "Great Books", Denby, a staff writer and former film critic for "The New Yorker", returned to Columbia University at age 48 and reenrolled in two Western civilization courses to read the classics. To find out what great books can do for the precollege set, he recently spent a year attending a tenth grade English class at one of New York's prestigious public high schools and also visited a public high school in New York's Westchester County and a struggling inner-city school in New Haven, CT.

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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    Henry Holt and Co.
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Lit Up
Lit Up
One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives.
David Denby
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