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Does 'Catcher' still belong on the list?

By / August 27, 2008



With the first day of school just a week away, it's a good time to raise these questions: What should today's kids be reading? And specifically, as Anne Trubek asks in Good Magazine, does J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" still belong on today's reading lists?

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Trubek concludes that it does not. Times have changed, she argues, the world has moved on, and so should reading lists. She offers at least a half dozen alternatives, from "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson to "Anywhere But Here" by Mona Simpson.

The world has changed, indeed. And when I think back to my 10th-grade required reading list, there are a few books I would definitely vote to jettison. For instance, much to the disappointment of my English-teacher father, I could never quite cotton to either "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles or "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding.

Not that my lack of enthusiasm had much impact. As far as I know (and I'm not even going to say how many years have since elapsed) the 10th-graders in my high school alma mater still read both these books. (And "Catcher" as well, I'm assuming.)

But in the case of "Catcher," I'm going to have to speak a word in its defense. Some years ago, I was asked to tutor a failing English student at a New York City high school. Gary was a smart kid. Smart enough to squeak through most of his classes without even trying.

But English was different. It bored him so utterly that he seemed incapable of making even the slightest effort. The books, he told me, all seemed so pointless. Reading to him was just an alternate form of torture. Even facing the threat of failure, he simply couldn't make himself do it.

Then we came to "Catcher."

"Oh, I LOVED this," I told him. He looked at me with deep suspicion. After all, hadn't I said the same thing about Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities"?

"I'll read it again with you," I told him. I stopped at the first bookstore I saw on my way home that night and eagerly pulled it off the shelf. And yet, I hadn't looked at "Catcher" in years and, I must admit, I wondered if it would have anything to say to me now.

It did. In fact, once I opened it I couldn't put it down. If anything, it seemed amazingly more wonderful to the adult me than it had to the 15-year-old – and I loved it as a teen.

But even more remarkable was Gary's reaction. The next time we met he pulled his copy out and I could see the pages were rifled. He'd actually been reading it!

He dropped into his chair, his slump a few inches less pronounced than usual. "I didn't know they wrote books like this," he told me. "Like what?" I asked him. "You know, like about real stuff like this, about the kind of things that people really think about," he said.

We spent the tutoring session talking about the "phonies" that Holden (and Gary, it turns out) so detested. The next day Gary had to write an in-class essay on the book and got his first A ever in English. He finished the book and even went on to read most of the next one ("Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" by Stephen Crane – a book Gary judged to be markedly inferior to "Catcher" but having once gotten the idea of reading he now seemed capable of making at least some sort of an effort.)

And he passed English. True story.

So here's my answer. Of course it's good to rough those lists up once in a while. Trabek is right, time moves on and so does the world. But sometimes a classic remains a classic. And "Catcher," it seems to me, is one of those.

What do you think? What should/shouldn't they read in schools these days? And what's your vote on "Catcher"?

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