“I Heard About this Book Called ‘Catcher in the Rye’…”

May 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

Catcher-in-the-rye-red-cover“I heard about this book called ‘Catcher in the Rye,” said Peyton. She was lining up a “book buddy” extra credit assignment to read with Madison.
I reached for two dog-eared copies with the familiar brick red cover, “Meet Holden Caufield,” I said.

Requests for Catcher in the Rye happen every year. Since we do not teach the novel as a whole class read, I am always happy to see the many copies we have circulating for independent reading. J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010, almost sixty years after his bildungsroman, (coming of age story) of a young man’s wanderings one day in New York City captured the angst of late adolescence for an audience familiar with that angst. Houlden Caufield’s voice was unlike any other, and readers adopted the book with a fervor that bordered on fanaticism. As evidence, there are well-worn copies at every used book sale.

In most high schools today, Catcher in the Rye has a reputation, a cult status. Its “banned book” pedigree  interests both conformist and non-conformists. According to World.edu:

Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. In 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.

Many of my students know about the book’s banning history from the South Park episode from Season 14: The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.  In this episode, the students at South Park Elementary are given copies of Catcher in the Rye and learn that the book is “filthy, is inappropriate, and made a guy shoot the king of hippies.”
“Can we PLEASE read this book now?” Cartman pleads.
(View at: http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/267355/lets-read-it-now )
Very quickly, however, the South Park students learn that 60 years after its publication, the language and themes in the story of Holden Caufield’s day are tame by today’s standards; they are dumbfounded and more than a little annoyed that anyone would consider the book inappropriate. My students have expressed the same puzzlement.

With only one major book to his credit, Salinger still commands the media’s attention. A tweet last week by OpenCulture linked the video below of the reclusive 91-year-old Salinger out for a stroll in Windsor, Vermont (2010):

Under the video, Open Culture also posted a series of anecdotes about Salinger, for example, a story about Nicholas Carr (Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

Nicholas Carr, who was working behind the circulation desk at the college library one summer when “a tall, slender, slightly stooped man” walked in. He remembers his boss whispering, “That’s J.D. Salinger”:

Holy crap, I thought. I just saw J.D. Salinger.

About ten minutes later Salinger suddenly reappeared at the desk, holding a dollar bill. I went over to him, and he said he needed change for the Xerox machine. I took his dollar and gave him four quarters.

That’s my claim to fame: I gave J.D. Salinger change for a buck.

Another recent news item on Salinger was published in the New York Times April 23, 2013, “The Young Salinger, Mordant Yet Hopeful” by Dave Itzkoff. The article described that a recent discovery of nine letters by a 22-year-old Salinger “revealed himself to be as playful, passionate and caustic as Holden Caulfield, the self-questioning adolescent who would become his most enduring creation.” The letters refer to other stories “unpublished and presumably lost works from this period”, tantalizing clues that will set Salinger fans hoping for yet unpublished materials to surface.

Salinger’s reclusiveness fascinates my students. In this day and age, his deliberate choice for isolation starkly contrasts from their uber-connected world of social media. Ironically, social media is a place where Holden thrives today. There are several facebook pages devoted to him. A Google map of his adventures complete with quotes details each step of his journey from the Wicker Bar at the Seton Hotel through the Central Park Zoo and into the Museum of Natural History. He would probably appreciate the myriad of Sparknotes, or Schmoop Notes, that help students who fail to complete assigned reading, or fail to listen to the audio book as available on YouTube. Holden has a Twitter account, @holdencaulfield, and a Tumblr account.  A  blog post on Flavorwire in July 2012 lists 10 Things Holden Caulfield Hates About Everyone including phonies:

“You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were.”

Predictable, we know. But no Holden Caulfield hate list would be complete without it.

Holden is out there mingling with audiences of this connected age, and now he is mingling with two more. Heads down, they are engrossed with his misadventures during our 20 minute silent sustained reading period.
“How’s Holden?” I ask quietly.
“Good,” they chorus without looking up. They have been caught by Salinger, caught by The Catcher in the Rye.

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