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Can you make kids love books?

The cultural critic Natasha Vargas-Cooper recently provoked the indignation of many readers (including, I admit, myself) by arguing in Bookforum that it was a bad idea to assign novels to high school students. "Just maybe," she wrote, "the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers." Nonfiction -- for example, the works of Jon Krakauer, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion -- strikes her as a better form "to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner."

Vargas-Cooper isn't completely wrong; her leading example is her own inability to appreciate the "heady though subtle emotions" in "The Sun Also Rises" when she first read it as a high school sophomore. She didn't get that the character Jake is impotent, or she sorta did but failed to grasp why this amounts to a major problem in his relationship to Lady Brett. She appreciates Hemingway's novel now, but back then, with so little life experience to draw from, most of it went right over her head.

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