Well, maybe not on the way home from the hospital. Maybe when the baby is six weeks old, or when she begins smiling. That might be a good time to pull her into your lap, or prop her up between you and your spouse or partner. Turning through pages, you read aloud a picture book. She won’t remember the words or pictures, but an impression of being held and read to will remain—a familiarity with the experience, an emotional reminder of pleasure, especially when it’s repeated hundreds of times. Second part of the deal: you talk to your baby constantly, from birth, telling stories, pointing out the things of the world, defining words, asking questions, and gently demanding answers when she’s old enough to give them. Like a child in a fairy tale, she will possess an unknown power, which, sooner or later, will burst forth. The reading ego, and the speaking ego, need thousands of little victories before they assert themselves without fear, and she will be ready. A child held, read to and talked to, undergoes an initiation into a useful life; she may also undergo an initiation into happiness.

Everyone agrees that establishing reading pleasure early in a child’s life is a monumental achievement (and you do it, the pediatricians say, with books, not with screens); and everyone also agrees that the gap between those children who grow up loving books and active conversation and those who don’t—with troubled school performance and restricted career opportunities likely for those who don’t—is a gap that gets set early and may be hard to close. Hard, but of course not impossible. It can be done in grade school and middle school. But what about high school? How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers—and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?

A few years ago, I was thinking about these issues, thinking in a non-productive, desultory way, and wondering, too, about high school reading lists (Does anyone read The Catcher in the Rye anymore? Is Hawthorne gone? Did anyone care?), when a stranger came up to me on the street. This sounds like an Upper West Side joke: “Guy comes up to you on the street . . . and starts talking about a school.” The stranger was a teacher, Samuel Abrams, a dark-eyed, well-knit man in his middle forties with an intense way about him. For years, he had taught history and economics at a public school he loved, the Beacon School, on West 61st Street in Manhattan. He was on leave in 2011 (and, as it turns out, would not go back); he was writing a book on the economics of education. (His book is now finished: Education and the Commercial Mindset, by Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia’s Teachers College.) Sam told me about the school, a cramped, ridiculously overcrowded place with a gym so intimate that a jump shot launched from fifteen feet would scrape the ceiling. Beacon inhabited a cruddy old building never intended as a school. Yet the place had spirit, Sam said. It had interesting students, ambitious teachers, a decent library, dozens of computers. It was a “progressive” school but hardly a slack, feel-good place. The students worked hard.

Yes, but how much were the students reading—in school, and on their own? And how much of it was quality of one sort or another? General information on such issues is not easy to come by. A Pew Research reading survey, conducted by telephone in 2014, reported that 46 percent of teens sixteen and seventeen said they read a book, including books for school, every day or almost every day. Since almost all the respondents at that age are students, 46 percent is not an impressive number. A recent summary of studies cited by Common Sense Media indicates that American teenagers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. The category of reading “for fun” is itself a little depressing, since it divides reading into duty (for school) and gratification (sitting on a couch, beach towel), as if the two were necessarily opposed. The category reinforces the idea that an assigned book—literature, usually—can’t be fun.

A more recent Pew survey, issued on April 9, 2015, reported that “aided by the convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices, especially smartphones, 92% of teens report going online daily—including 24% who say they go online ‘almost constantly.’ ” Apart from statistical studies, the testimony of teachers and parents is overwhelming; the evidence of one’s eyes is overwhelming. In general American teenagers may be reading more sheer words than ever, but they are reading mostly on screens; they certainly aren’t reading many serious books. Most of them are incredibly busy. School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting)—compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

When they were very young, teens may have read Harry Potter, and later they may read dystopian and science-fiction novels, vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young adult fiction (ditto), convulsively exciting street lit. By the time they are fifteen or sixteen, however, reading anything more demanding and time-consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once. Suddenly, they are not everywhere, they are there, on that page, in that time, moored, limited, and many are glum about it. Talk to them, and you will find out: being unconnected makes them anxious.

As they get older, many don’t see why reading seriously should be important at all. “Everyone knows how to read and write. Why do we need a whole class for it? That’s just stupid,” a fifteen-year-old said to his teacher in Mamaroneck, New York. He was referring to English class. If students are thinking of college, they may have been told by their elders that a liberal arts education and the humanities in particular are a waste of time. In an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that stuff won’t get you anywhere. But this is actual nonsense. We are producing more college graduates skilled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM subjects) than the economy can absorb. At the same time, employers have repeatedly said that they want to hire people with a good liberal arts education, people who can think, judge, and express themselves; they want people who can follow complicated instructions, talk in a meeting, understand fellow workers. They can always buy robots.

The demand for better-educated workers is only one part—and maybe the lesser part—of the issue. Sometimes, as Orwell said, the restatement of the obvious is a duty. So the obvious, then: the liberal arts in general, and especially reading seriously, offer an opening to a wider life, the powers of active citizenship (including the willingness to vote); reading strengthens perception, judgment, and character; it creates understanding of other people and oneself, maybe kindliness and wit, and certainly the ability to endure solitude, both in the common sense of empty-room loneliness and the cosmic sense of empty-universe loneliness. Reading fiction carries you further into imagination and invention than you would be capable of on your own, takes you into other people’s lives, and often, by reflection, deeper into your own. I will indulge a resounding tautology: every great civilization, including ours, has had a great literature and great readers. If literature matters less to young people than it once did, we are all in trouble. Speaking for myself, my life would be a poorer, weaker, duller thing without Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Raymond Chandler, John Le Carré, Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante; without John Grisham and Stephen King, too. Together and alone, we need literature as the California valleys need rain.

Electronic utopians say, “Calm down, nothing has been lost. If anything, the opportunities for reading have become much greater. Plenty of books are being sold, and even if books as physical objects are doomed, reading will survive, even expand. After all, you can get anything.” In the literal sense, this is true. You can find almost any book you want somewhere. Those who know what they are looking for can find it on a computer, a Kindle, Nook, iPad, tablet, or smartphone; the electronic library goes on forever, and the volumes will not get moldy. What technological utopians don’t and can’t explain, however, is this: How does the appetite for serious reading get created in the first place? A baby held in happy attention to books and stories has a good chance of loving reading as an adult. What about the others?

• • •

School was the place to find out. And students in tenth grade, I thought, were the right kids to look at. Recent work by neuroscientists has established that adolescence, as well as early childhood, is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity.” At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change. Fifteen is a danger spot and a sweet spot. Tenth-graders are going through a period of adolescent turmoil before they begin to grapple the next year with college admissions, the military, or a job. Many are figuring out who they are and what they want to be, sexually, professionally, and in all the other ways that matter. They can be reached. Their moral education as well as their literary education is at stake; the two may be inseparable. They may even learn to read good work “for fun.”

To write a nation-spanning report, or any kind of large, well-researched study was out of the question for me. Even a regional study, a city or school district report was impossible. I wasn’t qualified to do it. I could only make an arbitrary selection of teachers and readers, and then observe and describe and judge, using every element of my subjectivity as well as my sense of how the world works and how life was going—and would go in the future—for the students I followed. By common standards, a classroom is hardly a dramatic subject, but the drama is clear enough if you listen to the patterns, the revelations, the spurts of engagement, and the pall of boredom. It’s all there in the fumbled or lucid remarks, the cross talk, the moments of silence and enthusiasm.

After considering other schools, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, I came back to Sam Abrams’s school in Manhattan. He made Beacon sound interesting, and he was right. I scouted the place in the spring of 2011, and, in the following academic year (2011–12), I settled in with a single tenth-grade English teacher, a dynamo named Sean Leon. I wanted to see as well where some Beacon students might wind up a year later in their high school careers, so I paid periodic visits to two eleventh-grade classes, taught by Mary Whittemore and Daniel Guralnick. As kids banged off one another in the hallways, I scanned posters, collages, computer projects, and everything else on the walls. I walked up and down the single narrow stairway as students, hurrying to their next class rushed past me (“Sorry, sorry!”). In a dreary green-walled lunchroom, I sat down with some of Mr. Leon’s tenth-graders and tried to talk to them above the din.

• • •

I had done something like this before. In the eighties and early nineties, many people teaching humanities in the universities were debating such questions as, “Should the Western canon be imposed on kids descended from Latin American or African families? Was the ‘hegemonic discourse’ of the West empowering white elites and disempowering everyone else?” And so on. There was much else in “the curriculum wars,” but I do remember wondering, back in the late eighties, how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book. Curious to find out, I worked on a hefty tome that was eventually titled (with great invention) Great Books. For a full academic year (1991–92), I sat with students and teachers at Columbia, my alma mater, and read the College’s required selection of Western classics—pretty much the same books I had read as a freshman thirty years earlier.

Great Books, which came out in 1996, was a mixture of elements—my own feverishly happy reading; teachers at work on Homer, St. Augustine, Rousseau, and Virginia Woolf; students struggling with the books, sometimes reading them brilliantly, sometimes not. Great Books was something else as well—a physically placid, middle-aged adventure story. Lucky and generally content as a movie critic, I was nevertheless jangled by too many media images rattling around in my brain. I wanted my head to rattle with other things as well. I needed to go back to school. The ceremony of teaching and learning charmed and fascinated me a great deal.

Some of the same things are true for this book, which, in the event, has turned into a kind of prequel. Again, I wanted—needed—to see students and teachers; I needed to read and make a report on my reading. I would sit, listen, keep my mouth shut, talking to students and teachers outside of class when I could. And I would try to be faithful to my impressions and reflections, wherever they led. The billionaires throwing money at such education fixes as smaller schools or charter schools have, many of them, spent little time in classrooms. I am not a teacher, but I have been taught, and I have had some success watching teachers and reporting on what they were doing. As before, I wanted to work from the bottom up, with teachers and students, not from the top down.

The earlier book, in part, became a search for myself, a movie critic who was feeling lost in a welter of media images and needed to read and think seriously again. It was something of a reclamation job. But the point of view of this book is frankly parental. I wanted to see what the students were like and how they were doing intellectually. I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or else they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of “judging,” always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born—what happens when a nonreader becomes a reader?—which meant necessarily recording the students’ mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life. If they struggled into life.

Beacon is the setting for much of the book, but not its subject. Reading is the subject, and I read all the books, stories, and essays assigned to the students. As I sat in classes, I continued at my regular job—reviewing movies for the New Yorker—so that something like a normal working life would flow in and out of what I read and saw. Sitting down to write, I resolved not to quote Bacon, Montaigne, Emerson, de Tocqueville, or even John Dewey. Then, and later, I read such well-researched and powerful recent studies as The Knowledge Deficit (2006) by E. D. Hirsch Jr.; Proust and the Squid (2007) by Maryanne Wolf; Alone Together (2011) by Sherry Turkle; Present Shock (2013) by Douglas Rushkoff; Book Love by Penny Kittle, and other works about the intersection of technology, education, and reading. My debt to these authors and many others (I have listed them in the bibliography) is considerable, but in the end I relied principally on my eyes and ears as a limited but still useful set of tools.

• • •

As I wrote up my year in school, friends expressed some doubts. Wasn’t Beacon a special school with a special New York population? How well would it “scale”? That is, how much of what I found could be used (if anyone wanted to use it) by other public schools in other parts of the country—schools with different values, different students? My initial response was that there weren’t any typical high schools in America. What would they be—suburban schools, country schools, inner-city schools? They are all different. Any generalization you could make about American education, even one heavily backed with statistics, could be refuted by a contrary generalization, a contrary example. America isn’t Finland; it’s a big country, enormously diverse, and you could tie yourself in knots trying to typify and generalize while not learning much of anything that mattered. Therefore I would do better to observe a single place where literary education seemed to be working.

My resistance to the idea of scale was tied, I realized, to my distaste for the increasingly dominant American notion that only those things that could be quantified mattered in national life. Assertions that cannot be backed with statistics and probabilities—metricized, in tech-world jargon—create at best shrugging indifference, at worst disgust and ridicule. The demand for quantifiable results has created a desperate obsession with test scores. In the view of opponents like education historian Diane Ravitch, the obsession with scores has denatured education’s function as cultural enrichment, as citizen making, as soul making. Let’s put it this way: you don’t have to be John Keats to realize that the soul and what used to be called sensibility—a combination of knowledge, taste, judgment, wildness, respect—can never be quantified.

As I got into the writing, however, I discovered that my friends had a point. Beacon’s Sean Leon had an unusual reading list—existential classics, including Huxley, Orwell, Hesse, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Beckett, but not Twain, Dickens, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, or even Shakespeare. He grabbed his students by the throats and shook them into life. He challenged them constantly, asking them to define themselves and take hold of their lives. He was clearly trying to shape character with the books he assigned, the discussions he led. Other teachers could perhaps learn from parts of what he did, perhaps use parts of it, but they couldn’t replicate the entire experience. They couldn’t be him. And certainly no one could say that his was the only way to talk to teenagers. There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.

So I came around. Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013–14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public high schools—shuttling up many times during the year to the James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb—Mamaroneck, a “bedroom town” in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools (and paid as much as $30,000 annually in taxes to do so). Hillhouse had multiple troubles, including many transients, dropouts, low-performing kids. At the beginning of the year, the tenth-grade students refused to read the assigned texts at home; they weren’t openly rebellious, but they seemed puzzled by the assignments. What was the point? At a school like Hillhouse, only the most dedicated, passionate, and inventive teachers can help students surge forward, and I think I found one. But Mamaroneck High School was worried, too. The administration and the English Department were alarmed to discover that some of their kids were not reading the assigned books. The nonreaders and grudging readers consulted the online “study aid” SparkNotes and threw back what it had to say about The Great Gatsby and Macbeth; they listened in class, picked up what they could, and brazened it out. Acting on its disappointments, Mamaroneck was attempting something new with parts of its English curriculum. Pleasure in reading was the key issue for them. They needed to create it.

People read for all sorts of reasons, and at all levels of difficulty and art. (Only prigs read demanding books all the time.) A minority, perhaps, read not only to enjoy themselves but to understand the world, and, ultimately, to know how to live and die in it. That kind of reading is a special good. If saying so amounts to an elitist assumption, I accept the charge—as long as it’s understood that this is an elite anyone can join. Those who assume that serious recreational reading is bound solely by class (the upper middle class and those who would join it) may be overvaluing their own pessimism. The entranceway is not as narrow as that. The first premise of American public education is that the door is wide open. The question always is how many will walk through or get pushed through. That entranceway is where teachers matter more than the rest of us.

To argue that reading is good seems as silly as arguing that sex, nature, and music are good. Who could disagree? Yet, implicitly, many teenagers do disagree. This book, I hope, will provide something better than an argument; it will perhaps offer a small demonstration—not a proof, certainly, but a small demonstration—of why literature should be central to the moral, spiritual, and pleasurable life of young people.

A Note on Teachers and Students

The teachers appear under their own names. The students are real people, and I have taken down their words faithfully. Teenagers, however, should not be tagged by an outsider at a vulnerable time in their lives, and I have made up names for them. I have called them “boys” and “girls.” They were fifteen going on sixteen.

A Note on Chronology

As I earlier noted, I visited Beacon one year, Hillhouse and Mamaroneck in another. Most of the book was written after the reporting was done, and I realized, as I wrote, that the practices of one school, or one English class, challenged, contradicted, played on the practices of another. So I have raised these issues in what I wrote, at the end of my experience, regardless of when the classes took place in time.

A Note on Pronouns

I’m not crazy about writing “his or her” to describe a group mixed by gender. Those locutions kill the rhythm of nearly every sentence they appear in. At least they kill my sentences—other writers may be shrewder in getting around the problem. Therefore I have used, as a generalizing pronoun, “she” in some cases and “he” in others, “hers” in some cases and “his” in others. Nothing should be inferred from the use of one pronoun or another. It’s just a compositional strategy to avoid bad prose.

A Note on Unions

I went looking for good public-school teachers. It was only after I found a few that I realized they were all members of teacher unions.

A Note on the Subtitle

The number twenty-four refers to the books, stories, and plays discussed in the text. The complete reading lists for the classes I visited can be found in appendix 1.

Copyright © 2016 by David Denby