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.