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Reading great books remains important

bookLent, which extends from Ash Wednesday to Easter, is for many Christians a time of fasting and prayer. Some believers also forego certain pleasures. A child, for example, may give up candy while adults swear off tobacco or alcohol. In recent years, some teens and adults have removed themselves from Facebook or in a more positive approach, set for themselves daily Bible readings.

Keep fasting in mind. We’ll be coming back to that idea in this review.

In Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives (Henry Holt and Company, 2016, 257 pages, $30), writer and former film critic David Denby takes us inside three high school literature classes in New York. He tells us of his interactions with the students, gives us vivid descriptions of the teachers he meets, and writes movingly about the books the students read and discuss.

Twenty years ago, Denby ventured into another classroom. In Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, he reported on his return to his alma mater, Columbia University, at the age of 50, where he spent a year in a Great Books class. 

To compare these two books — Great Books and Lit Up — is highly instructive. The gap between them may be only a score of years, but it constitutes a canyon in terms of students, reading, and technology. In Great Books, the Columbia students were highly engaged in their reading bringing to classroom discussions other books they have read. In Lit Up, a few high school students do some outside reading, but most are much more heavily involved in technolog — their computers and iPods, their smart phones and their musical devices. Though separated by only 20 years, Great Books and Lit Up stand as markers of radically different eras.

In Lit Up, we along with Denby become increasingly aware of the influence of the electronic screen not just on the lives of these students, but on Americans in general. Denby recounts the story of one teacher who realized she hadn’t read a book cover to cover in a long time. That evening she began reading Hermann Hesse’s The Glass-Bead Game. She had to force herself to read the pages rather than just skimming them, to remain seated with the book in her lap when she felt the urge to open the computer. For two weeks, she struggled with her reading until it finally came naturally to her again. As Denby says, her struggles to remain with a book reminded him of an alcoholic trying to get sober.

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Which brings me to fasting. 

In a class centered around Huxley’s Brave New World, teacher Sean Leon turned the students’ attention to the influence of electronic media. He first had them write down the amount of time they watched television every week, with the totals ranging from three hours to 21. He and the students turned next to total media time, everything from Facebook to music. A class of seniors averaged 70 hours per week. A few students reported breaking 200 hours per week. Leon was baffled by this figure — a week only contains 168 hours — but the students laughed. “Overlapping! Multitasking!” 

His response:

 “Starting at five today, I’m going to ask you to step away from all this for two days … A digital fast — no cell phones, no TV, no iPod … Some students, when I’ve done this in the past, do nothing with the time. Try to do something.”

Only 14 of the 32 students made it through those two days. 

Reading about that experiment made me consider how much I cover myself with media and entertainment. Excluding actual writing time and writing letters via email to my students and parents, I figured I spent about 15 hours per week online. Though I gave up my television years ago, I watch movies and television shows online late at night, so let’s call it another seven hours. I do little with my cell phone, so call that an hour. When I am writing or online, I frequently listen to music, as I am right now, so add another 20 hours. 

Forty-three hours a week finds me engaged with some sort of media.

I am a reader. I revisit half a dozen books a day, books I’ve already read but come back to as old friends. I read books for review for this column, books and articles for the subjects I teach in school, and books for pleasure. 

Yet I also know that electronic media, in my case the computer, have diminished my powers of reading. Rarely, unless a book casts a special spell over me, do I read for long periods of time anymore. Often, too, I find myself dipping into a book, particularly if it’s non-fiction, reading here and there, but not from beginning to end. 

The schools observed by Denby were trying to make readers of their students, but nearly all involved — administrators, teachers, students — face a tough battle against the gadgets that have become as much a part of our daily lives as sleeping and eating. And for these students, who have grown up on screens and images, who communicate by text rather than pen, who often lose focus after reading five or six paragraphs, the challenge of becoming a reader is much greater.

Recently, some neurological scientists have expressed concerns about the effect of electronic media on human beings. Those who are deeply involved with a screen often have trouble focusing for long periods of time or approaching a problem in depth. Google “electronic media changing the brain.” The results may shock you.

I am ignorant about such things, but I do agree with Denby’s conclusions. Books are important. Good teachers are important. Bringing together students and literature students is important. 

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at minick0301@gmail.

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