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Coming Through the Rye
modern lit
Will work when coffee has been ingested. And what better way to ingest caffeine than while thinking about J.D. Salinger.

His death didn't really hit me very hard because I didn't know the man and I have trouble performing the postmodern dance of grief for someone I neither knew nor whose work I enjoyed--possibly this is one effect of, you know, being a hermit. I literally know nothing about the man.

But I know about the book, mainly because almost everyone I know hated it in school. And with his passing I find myself wondering why. It seems like a good fit--make a bunch of disaffected, angry teenagers read a book about a disaffected angry teenager. They'll relate! They'll feel like the school understands them, for assigning such a book. This was the novel we were supposed to identify with, as opposed to Hamlet and Macbeth. And yet most of us recoiled from the book entirely. (I do love the passage the title comes from, though.) It's not that I thought Holden was a loser--I was a loser in high school, I had no room to judge. It wasn't the privilege. I had no money but lots of my friends did. I didn't hold it against them.

I think it's (yet another) instance of making teenagers in the 90s and 2000s read about the problems of teenagers in the 50s as though life stopped evolving and changing in 1969. We get that generation crammed down our mouths every time we turn around--we acted out their narratives in school plays like Butterflies Are Free and watched it in practically every movie--and when I was in school, the other side of the hand doing the cramming was making damn sure we knew what a bunch of lazy, spoiled brats we were and how we needed a war to toughen us up. Holden's story had literally nothing to do with us. It was the opposite of relatable. And yeah, everyone's a phony. But in 1951 that was a fairly bold thing to say. In 1995, when I read it, it was baby talk, and the cognitive dissonance of having a clearly bored and resentful teacher phoning it in to say it was still edgy to call someone a phony was way too much. The violence with which I hated that book is directly related to the system that insisted it was my story, when it was literally my grandfather's story. (Being a teenager in 1951 means being quite a bit older than either of my parents.)

So they're all fucking phonies, Holden. Yes, they are. And they used you to belittle us, and they used you to dismiss us, and they used you to avoid having to think for even a minute about us as anything but a disappointing reflection of their own generation. And we hated you for it, because we didn't know how to hate them. But in that sense, Salinger and his creation did a lot for us. He gave us a book we could bond over disliking without ever quite getting why, and gave school boards everywhere a chance to alienate teenagers and piss them off for a good long while yet.

And that's an investment in the future.

Well, I disliked Holden because he was a twit . . .

Thank the gods I wasn't the only one who thought this. Ugh. My fave book in high school was "To Kill a Mockingbird". "Rye" did nothing for me.

Perhaps I had a few English teachers with a bit more nuance, because I loved Catcher in the Rye. Though my favorite part was definitely the passage from which the title comes.

In a way, I think the fact we no longer respond as strongly to this stuff means we might well have grown up that much more. The book served a need, and by and large that need has been satisfied.

That doesn't mean we can't force kids to read it through 2030!

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Likewise, as a teen in the 70s, I felt that Erich Segal's Love Story wasn't my people, either. (grin)

On the other hand, when reading Heinlein's juveniles in the same era, I knew I was reading them out of the decade they were written and made allowances for it because I wanted to read Starman Jones's story.

Perhaps today's teens need novels about disaffected teens and sparkly vampires...

Dr. Phil

I love this post almost as much as I love that icon. :)

if it was me, i would have the kids read Less Than Zero.

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Back in the day, "Catcher" was not prohibited but was definitely discouraged reading. I was never assigned the book and read it on my own when I was the right age to read it. I'd probably find it tedious now but when I was 14 I thought it deep and meaningful. I am stunned to discover that it is assigned reading anymore.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
Hmm. Looking at pop culture right now, I think the updated Catcher would be an emotionally authentic story about teenagers and porn.

It occurs to me that my vampire project is very Catcher with vampires and a girl protagonist. But, you know, not in the fucking 50s.

Hee. You probably figured out by now from the comments that people vary on this..

Interestingly enough Catcher in the Rye is notable as being amongst the books that was "banned" from numerous schools at different points. And has a long history on the censorship list.

Never quite understood why. I guess "language"?? (shrugs)

I read everything I could get my hands on in school and had to write book reports or talk about half of them. The novels I hated and worked hard to avoid were published in the 19th century.

So for me, a book, was a way to escape into another's head, often foreign territory. I, of course, preferred the less foreign that I could identify with..but that was merely because it is easier to read that which resonates or you agree with, than that which doesn't.

Have a close friend, african-american, relatives from the South, who won't venture below the Mason-Dixon line to live - she told me that she reads Flannery O'Connor to figure out how racists think. Always found that fascinating.

I don't like Catcher in the Rye, found it dreadfully dull and a tad dated, although the surrealistic writing style and the movie which was even more so...were ground-breaking for the time (it was the 1950s after all) - but it is not Salinger's only book, not by a large margin. I think he did another Frankie and Zoe or something like that, which is equally famous and I've heard better.

I read the Top 100 Banned Books from 1990-2000 as a project a few years ago, and the reason I found for the banning was "the use of offensive language, premarital sex, alcohol abuse, and prostitution."

I had a hard time getting through it, but I did like Holden, once I got past the layers of "woe is me, the world sucks." But I rather liked Franny and Zooey better.

This was actually mentioned at one of the panels in this year's Arisia. Then too I found it strange to hear someone say that the later generations disliked the book. I had a very different experience in 2002, for everyone in my class could relate to Holden, many clearly stating that Catcher in the Rye was the only book they enjoyed reading in school. I, on the other hand, hated it. I felt that Holden was just a whiny little bitch and a hypocrite to boot. I wasn't a "loner" then, but I hung out with that small group of outcasts, socially excluded for their outlandish interests in things like books and theater.

I never had to read it in school, and so, probably as a result, liked it when I read it. Or, at least, I liked Holden - his neurosis, his want, his scorn - I didn't share them, but they made him feel very much like a real person. It probably helped that my first exposure to the book was to see someone performing part of it as a Speech piece _Catcher works much better when read out loud.

Great post. Hadn't thought about the generational angle.

I had to read it 3 times(!) in the mid-80s for Jr. High and High-school teachers. I hated it all 3 times, but most of my classmates dug it. It still had the whiff of illicit at that point - the kind of thing our slightly-nutty not-so-ex-hippie AP English teacher liked to assign. Not out of cynicism, but out of a genuine belief that it was subversive and edgy, since that's probably still how he viewed it.

Interesting that 10-ish years later I would have been in the majority... though I suppose geography could have something to do with it as well.

I actually wrote a college entrance essay (on 'a book that influenced me') about how much I disliked that book and Holden's constant whining. I didn't get in...

Oh yeah! I knew why I hated that book, but you have very neatly summed it up. And yeah, the more people told me I should love it and find it edgy, the more I hated it. It is /dated/. Very, very dated. And, while I think it is an important work in the history of literature and therefore one should know about it, there isn't any real need to /read/ it. A short summary would really do. Because all the things that made it shocking at the time are just /boring/ to us today. But teacher still spoke like we should be /shocked/ at the use of swearwords. Yeah. No.

But there was precisely one likeable character in that book, and that character was definitely not the one with the most screen time.

Now, for the good and sightly more relevant, though it's also getting a bit dated, disaffected teenager book, try Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas.

I think it's (yet another) instance of making teenagers in the 90s and 2000s read about the problems of teenagers in the 50s as though life stopped evolving and changing in 1969.


Ahem. Still bitter about that one. And in that case, you don't even have the tenuous justification of "he's a disaffected teenager; you're all disaffected teenagers; you should get along great!" He's a middle-aged guy in a job so outdated we have to explain to you what it entails, having a giant midlife crisis, and we're going to pretend you have some reason to care about him.

Hated that play, with the burning heat of a thousand suns. And I think the mentality you describe, that the world stopped somewhere around the childhoods or early adulthood of the teachers, contributed a lot to that.

Oh man, right with you on that. Fuck Willie Loman.

Oddly, when I think about Catcher in the Rye, I'm pretty sure now--having seen so many of you talking abot it after Salinger's death--that I've been confusing it all these years with some other book I read in high school as well. A book that for the life of me I cannot remember the title of because I thought it was Catcher in the Rye.


I suggest it because it took my brain far too long to keep those titles separate (I've never read either one).

In my junior year honors English class, we split up into groups where we got to choose the book we wanted to read, discuss it and then present it to class. That was the book I chose and I honestly loved it. Maybe I lucked out, because the teacher did not shove it down our throats, expecting us to love it. I did relate to the book, mostly because I had seen how people weren't honest in their behavior and was in this phase of mourning my childhood and scared of becoming an adult.
I've read it maybe 3 times since and definitely look at it differently than I did when I was 17. Caulfield's angst gets rather whiny, and he clearly suffers the same flaws he criticizes in others. It's hard to put aside the white male uppder-middle-class privilege. But I still enjoy reading the story from a more nuanced adult perspective. I often point out that it's a book written by a 30-year-old guy, not a teenager.
Of course, mileage varies and everyone is entitled to their own taste/opinion.

That said, I do think it's an over-valued book that over-shadows the rest of Salinger's published output. Even my boyfriend, a big Salinger fan, prefers the Glass family stories.

Caulfield's angst gets rather whiny, and he clearly suffers the same flaws he criticizes in others.

Which is a big part of the point of the novel, isn't it? At least it seemed so to me.

I don't know that I agree with this, any more than I agree when people argue that studying Shakespeare in high school is pointless because nobody talks like that and anyway the story is dumb because, you know, what kind of idiot puts on a play to try to prove his uncle killed his dad? I mean, you don't ever see that on CSI.

Shakespeare is not presented as something that should hit us where we live. And is frankly a lot better than Catcher. What I'm saying is that the teaching of this book is in itself phony, and that's really jarring.

I liked it. But I generally judge books by what's between the covers, not by how I feel about my teachers or the system or whatever...

I guess I can see your point, I mean sure, it's not about kids of the '90s, but it seems weird to me to get so mad at a book because it's a few decades old and someone made you read it in school. If the book is bad that's one thing; if your mad at your teachers that's another.

I assume you like Shakespeare? Or Milton? Or Austen or Ellison or Dickens or something from previous eras that often gets assigned in school? If not, then you're admirably consistent. But if you do, what's the difference? Just the expectation you felt the adults had that you would relate to this one? Or is there really something between the covers that bugs you too?

Personally, the book I hated the most was the Scarlet Letter. I think because the type of Christians it was about pissed me off so much. Now, being more mature and accepting that disliking what they do in the story is a lot of the point, I feel I'd probably like it more. But I think I'd still be so annoyed at them that I wouldn't like it that much.

See above comment. No one presented Shakespeare or Milton as something edgy and dangerous that would hit us where we lived, that would speak to our experience. I expected Shakespeare to show me another world. Catcher was sold as showing us OUR world.

Funny thing, I loved the book form the first reading. Not because I related to Holden or something, no. I pretty much hated what he did. But it was a truthful book. And then, when I was a teacher myself, I met a boy who was Holden and the book became even more precious.

You just articulated exactly why I loathed Catcher when I was a high school sophomore. If I'm counting correctly, it was 1995 for me, too.

I got my only English class D ever on my assignment for that book. The assignment was to answer a list of imagination-free questions about Catcher. The question handout was probably older than me, and invited me to talk about the Themes of the Book, the Symbolism of the Baseball Mitt, and the definition of the word "phony." My English teacher was known for his obsession with frog jokes and his reliance on ancient handouts; I don't ever remember him actually teaching anything. I filled out the answers with loathing, and I may actually have written something like, "I hate this book and I really don't care."

I think it must have been in February, or sometime in the winter, and I think I was in the middle of something I recognized eventually as my annual Seasonal Affective Disorder depressive kick. I know that I bounced hard off of Catcher, and that my hatred for it was something that I could hold on to in an awful month.

(It wasn't awful for any reason. I know now how incredibly privileged I was and am. But I was fourteen years old, and everything was just awful.)

Which is to say, thank you so much for being able to articulate things I knew when I was fourteen but had no idea how to express.

I never actually knew why I hated that book until now. That WAS my reaction, just as you said, I hated it without ever knowing why, figured there was something just unliterary about me, or possibly that I wasn't a psychopath enough to see the Great Deep Message.

But this makes total sense. The Deep Message isn't deep for us. It was obvious. Everyone wears masks. EveryTHING is phony and manufactured. We grew up on cartoons made to sell toys, as elaborate marketing machines. My parents grew up on Roy Rogers teaching them what it meant to Be a Hero. Grandparents grew up in the Depression. No wonder we know different things by the time we're teens.

Thank you for thinking about this and writing it down.

I don't remember when I read it, exactly. Could have been as early as the late 60's. It was supposed to be cool and edgy, but it just made my skin crawl. I didn't know the word 'misogyny' then, but that's what I remember about it; how male it was and how dismissive of girls.

Yeah, it's one of those books where girls are these weird robots that boys are looking for the right code to make them do what they want them to (have sex), and don't exist, otherwise.

I loathed Catcher in the Rye, not because of the teacher I had at the time -- my grade 11 english teacher, Ms Hunt, was a fabulous, witchy woman whom I adored -- but because of freaking Holden.

Loathesome, self-absorbed, whiny little snot.

And it wasn't MY story. It might, in 1951, have been my brother's story. Maybe. If my parents had been able to send him to a fancy school. But me? If my story even made it into the book, it would have been as a footnote. One of those gals his loser roommate tried to "give the time of day" to. :-P

Might I recommend Generations as a very thick but interesting read about how different generations deal with one another.

I'm actually reading it now. Trouble is, twenty years is just not a generation. It's not. I have nothing culturally in common with someone 50 years old right now. I have friends that age, but we hit that wall a lot--they've had their kids, have a different set of references...

So that keeps irritating me, especially since I'm a cusper, 1979. I am NOT Gen X. Someone born in 1960? Not my peer.


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