Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Have You Read This Book?

In an essay on the Good Magazine website, Anne Trubek wonders aloud why high school teachers continue to put The Catcher in the Rye on their syllabi:
Why is The Catcher in the Rye still a rite of high school English? Sure, J.D. Salinger’s novel was edgy and controversial when teachers first put it on their syllabi. But that was 50 years ago. Today, Salinger’s novel lacks the currency or shock value it once had, and has lost some of its critical cachet. But it is still ubiquitously taught even though many newer novels of adolescence are available.
She goes on to recommend some updated options for teachers looking to fill the "adolescent novel" slot on their reading list, including The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Drown by Junot Diaz.

In the comments, people are (mostly) upbraiding her for being either irrelevant (arguing that nobody teaches Salinger anymore) or just plain wrong. I'm curious to hear where Vroman's readers are on the subject. I haven't read The Catcher in the Rye since high school, but I will gladly cop to being a big Salinger fan back in the day. I preferred his short stories to his novels, but I had a high opinion of The Catcher in the Rye at the time, for sure. But then I hadn't read so many of the books I would call my favorites yet, either.

It seems to me that The Catcher in the Rye was a carrot in high school, something to get you moving as a reader, a gateway drug, so to speak (In this analogy, I suppose something like Tess of the D'Urbervilles would be the "stick"). I wonder if it still serves its purpose today. Something that Trubek didn't address in her essay is the rise of young adult literature as a powerful force. With Harry Potter, Twilight, the Inheritance series, and other popular books making major inroads with young readers at an age before they might encounter it, do we still need The Catcher in the Rye to hook readers? I realize that young adult literature, in the form of Robert Cormier and others, existed before Harry Potter, but it wasn't the same. Sure, you could dig a library-bound paperback of The Chocolate War out of the shelves at your school library (if it wasn't banned), but I don't remember anybody camping out outside a bookstore to buy it.

I'm not terribly interested in whether people think Salinger's novel is good or not--I'm too far removed to make any kind of real judgement--but I am intersted in hearing from teachers, school librarians, and fellow readers about what books should be taught in high school these days. Is Trubek right or does The Catcher in the Rye still have a place in the American high school syllabus?

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At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to answer this post because I think it's really interesting but I haven't read Catcher in the Rye since high school, either, though I read it many times (not as many times as I saw Diner, though. Still, I think it's an iconic work and the writing is so accessible to those video-game playing high school kids. I don't think it should be an either/or thing. I'd like to know what Edan thinks.

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Edan said...

Well, hello. I agree with you and Patrick. I haven't read Catcher in the Rye since high school and I barely remember it. That said, I read it on my own, not in a class, and I recall not thinking much of it. That said, so many students do love it, and it would be a shame to take it off reading lists because it's perhaps become outdated--do we want kids reading only for shock value? A what if students are reading the novel because it's a kind of time capsule of a bygone brand of disaffected youth? With this model, kids might see how they overlap with Holden, and how they differ. I do agree that Catcher in the Rye should be one of many books on teen reading lists, and I think Trubek's suggestions are terrific.

My teen students this summer had to read Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley and Carrie by Stephen King. Go figure.

Also, an Anne Trubek teaches at this the same woman?

Fuck, I have to go write my stupid novel.

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read Catcher in the Rye until I was in my 30s and it didn't really make much of an impression on me. I love Salinger's short stories, but I do remember thinking that perhaps you had to be a teenager to really appreciate it. That said, I read Prep (a modern day, girl's Catcher in the Rye, some have said...) a couple of years ago and it totally resonated with me and reminded me of my teen years. Ultimately, I think only the teenagers themselves can answer this question. If it speaks to them and gets them excited about reading a book, then we should keep teaching it and keep recommending it. My question is whether Catcher in the Rye still feels relevant to the teenagers of today.

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Carolyn said...

I taught freshman comp last year and my students had grown up with Harry Potter. None of them cited Catcher in the Rye as being a seminal book for them (hey, some of 'em didn't read past Sports Illustrated and ESPN online), but my grad student colleagues -- especially those studying adolescent literature, aka YA -- all had. I'm tempted to say it's become outdated, but MANY of my freshmen had read Edgar Allen Poe in high school -- he's much earlier, and was universally adored.

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. It's time to change books.


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