Yeah, I read some of the “classics” in high school. But reading force-fed text didn’t make me appreciate the books as “classic” or read out of pleasure. Were these the aims of my English Literature teachers? Were they? Forget it. I probably won’t like the answer.
At seventeen and out of high school, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was the first novel I read without any school forcefully giving it to me as “required reading.” The strange title made me curious and I remember being bored out of my mind when I yanked it out of the shelf. It was there because it was my younger brother’s required reading text for his high school, sophomore-level literature class. That, and he somehow wasn’t able to sell it to an incoming sophomore student.
It was the first novel to really speak to my teenage self and made me laugh out loud. It was written in plain, straightforward English that didn’t alienate me like some of the “classics” did. Reading works like Beowulf, Shakespeare, and Chaucer was a mind-numbing chore and whatever profundity they contained was lost on me. Main character and (unreliable) narrator Holden Caulfield’s language and thoughts were simple, inarticulate, and yet insightful. The novel was filled with his ramblings that didn’t follow a straightforward narrative, but that’s irrelevant to reading it. My mind wandered with him and was entertained by his rambling stories and hilarious observations as he meanders through life. They’re so funny that whenever I wanted a laugh I just open a random page of the book and start reading.
What was the lesson of the book again? Who cares! What’s important is the pleasure that I derived from reading it and made me crave for similar experiences. Craving more experiences means more readings. More readings mean more reading experiences, which leads to pushing yourself through increasingly complex language and themes. Gaining experience means learning and learning means maturity.
This leads me to believe that certain works of literature traditionally forced into K-12 reading curricula is only fully understood and appreciated when some personal and intellectual maturity is reached. Or perhaps, should only be taught by conscientious educators. Coming from my experiences as a student learning to read, as a teacher teaching how to read, and as a reader loving to read I think that it would do the youth and the people of this intellectually and morally bankrupt of a country a favor if we make reading books simpler, accessible, pleasurable, and unforced at first. Thanks for being simple and honest (or as you would say, not “phony”), Holden. That should be the start of things––I think.
“I want to put some ice-skates on some Viennese girl’s feet again.” Letter from JD Salinger to Ernest Hemingway, 1945, Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
“Holden’s New York,” Thomas Beller, originally published in the New York Times, republished in Mr. Bellers Neighborhood, New York City Stories
“Notes on a Native Son,” James Campbell, The Guardian
“Removed by a Dorchester District 2 school board member in Summerville, SC (2001) because it ‘is a filthy, filthy book.’” Catcher in the Rye, Banned and Challenged, American Library Association