This week’s column:
I spent last week reacquainting myself with Holden Caulfield.
Caulfield’s not always the best company. He swears a lot, sometimes shouts during conversations and asks pointed and embarrassing questions about sex. Still, he’s much more interesting than many of the “phonies” (as he calls them) at the various prep schools from which he’s been expelled.
One of Holden’s more riveting stories is about the night after he leaves Pencey Prep. Kicking around New York City instead of going home to face his parents, he decides to hire a prostitute. The girl’s name is Sunny, even though her disposition is anything but. By the time she arrives at his hotel room, Holden — a virgin — has changed his mind, but gives her the agreed upon $5 anyway. (In 1951, $5 went a long way.) The episode ends with Sunny’s pimp beating Holden to a pulp.
Holden and I met again in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel of adolescent angst by J.D. Salinger that is sometimes said to be on every serial killer’s bookshelf. I doubt that’s true, but I also don’t doubt that many serial killers have read the book, if only because so many teens see the novel as a rite of passage, and serial killers were teens once too.
Salinger’s novel has been praised and reviled, analyzed and dismissed, and sometimes even pulled from library shelves and school curriculums. According to the American Library Association, the book is the second most banned and challenged classic, behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Teachers have been fired for teaching “Catcher,” protesters have called it “anti-white,” and charges such as “obscene,” “vulgar” and “unacceptable” have been leveled against it.
Beginning Saturday and running through Oct. 1, the ALA is celebrating Banned Books Week to call attention to our right, as citizens in a free society, to make our own decisions about “The Catcher in the Rye” and hundreds of other books that have offended someone, somewhere.
It’s a week to celebrate titles such as “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s story about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin into a loving home; “Crank,” a novel in poetic form about teenage drug addiction; and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is often singled out for racist language by readers who can’t discern the theme of equality at the novel’s core.
I’ve never understood why some people feel compelled to have books removed from libraries and schools. Parents certainly have the right to monitor what their children read, and they have a right to refuse their children access to any book they find unacceptable. What they don’t have the right to do is make such decisions unilaterally for an entire community and force their objections on other people’s children.
As an English teacher, I initiate this conversation with many of my classes. Most students agree that other people’s parents shouldn’t tell them what to read; we often part company, however, when it comes to their own parents telling them what they can read. I felt the same way when I was their age, and I was fortunate never to have adults who second-guessed my book choices. I, in turn, never objected to any of my daughter’s reading material. Other parents feel differently, and I respect that.
I also believe that you can never judge a book until you’ve read it, one of the reasons why I assign “The Catcher in the Rye” to my juniors, so that they can join in the debate. Some relate to Holden’s angst; some find him unbearably whiny. I never direct opinions either way, and their culminating assignment is to judge the book’s literary worth and legacy — to decide, in other words, if it’s worthy. What they decide is secondary to how they express themselves.
With apologies to Mark Twain, who said that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” my own definition is that a classic is a book with something to offend everybody.
I’m not sure if Twain’s definition or mine is right when it comes to “The Catcher in the Rye,” but personally, I always look forward to sitting and talking with Holden. If he were real, he’d take great pleasure in knowing that he still inspires controversy 52 years after first railing against “phonies,” talking loudly and holding up a mirror by which we can judge ourselves. That’s what literature does, and what most of the titles on the Banned Books list do better than most.