Lit Up by David Denby, Henry Holt, 288 pages, $30. The haunting questions that inflame the dustflap of this book are: “Can screen-obsessed teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it and what books?”
The less-haunting question that some of us New Yorker readers can’t quite banish from our heads is this: how does the New Yorker’s film reviewing fare now that David Denby is writing books like this and the entire film reviewing gig has been placed in the witty and capable but far less insightful and cinematically committed hands of Anthony Lane? There’s no question that Lane is a man whose antic muse as a critic can never be dismissed for long – or his occasional poetic gift either – but Denby was a far more substantive critic with a vastly more convincing overview.
But Denby’s restiveness had been self-evident for a long while. He wrote a personal book on the stock market (“American Sucker”), a perceptive book-length expression of dismay about “Snark” and another book-length essay contemplating “Do the Movies Have a Future?” (more substantive, in its way, than A.O. Scott’s apologia for the film’s critic’s trade recently published.)
This offshoot of “Great Books,” follows, as its subtitle tells us, “One Reporter” through “three schools” and “twenty-four books that can change lives.” In a book dedicated to teachers, Denby is convinced that “a child held, read to, and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may also undergo an initiation into happiness.”
In order to investigate the surviving truth of that conviction in the digital age, Denby – admirably, even brilliantly – sat in with 10th graders in three schools: Beacon School in New York (for a year), Hillhouse School in New Haven and Marmaroneck School in Westchester County.
What follows, from Denby’s rich perception, is a report on the primal high school experience of great literature in a screened-in world: Hawthorne, Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, “Brave New World,” “1984,” “The Odyssey,” “East of Eden,” “Siddhartha,” “Slaughterhouse Five,””To Kill a Mockingbird,” Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. The teachers, he decides, are almost all. – Jeff Simon