The Books We Read in High School
I never read The Catcher in the Rye when I was supposed to.
The progressive high school I went to didn’t assign it. We read Brave New World while the rest of the country’s tenth graders read To Kill a Mockingbird. My Honors English class unpacked Les Miserables (yes, really — all seven-hundred pages of it) when every other fifteen-year-old was getting through The Scarlet Letter. And before I got to the progressive school, I survived ninth grade on an Army base where we read Catch-22.
So I didn’t get to Of Mice and Men when other students did. I’d read Lord of the Flies in middle school, and when my teacher realized most of us had, we didn’t bother with the debate over nature versus nurture. We simply moved on to Othello quicker than we were supposed to.
And when I did finally read The Catcher in the Rye outside of a class’s curriculum?
I gotta say I was underwhelmed.
This may be an unpopular opinion amongst my community of fellow bookworms, but I cannot flipping stand The Catcher in the Rye. I appreciate that it captured New York City in the fifties so well. I appreciate that it is a difficult undertaking to poignantly encapsulate a teenage experience in a single work of fiction.
But good gracious, Salinger, who hurt you?
Oh, wait. It was a revolving door of women you thought you had feelings for. Got it.
I didn’t read it for a class, and I’m glad. I know a handful of students I would have gleefully dug into during classroom discussions about this book, and such spitfire conversations were (thankfully) avoided. Yet every chat I’ve had about the book since has begun with another person telling me, “Oh, yeah, I had to read that for school.”
I’m glad we were assigned to read The Color of Water instead.
It’s time for high schools everywhere to move on from the so-called “classics”. For goodness’ sake, find something that’s been published within the last fifty years. Center your syllabus around books that have characters who know what an iPhone is. No wonder today’s teenagers carve out space on the internet where they can cultivate stories of their own. No wonder so many of them find Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales tiresome. I can’t say I blame them.
So what would I suggest to replace them…
Let today’s teenagers read and debate Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. Pick a Zadie Smith novel. Try out The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu.
Yes, 1984 illustrates what could happen under a dictatorial, invasive regime, but at this point, I assure you, high schoolers are well informed of the dangers of zero privacy because now they live it. If you need to explain dystopia to young people, American War by Omar El Akkad more than fits the bill as does The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons.
It’s okay to leave Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath off the lesson plan. We’re done with the exact same back and forth year after year.
It’s okay to look at indie books and self-published books and new to the bestseller list books as viable (and indeed preferable) tools to teach lessons of family dynamics and societal structures and the roller coaster of teenage rebellion.
School boards and English departments everywhere, I beg of you: consider new ways to expand young minds. Give them reading assignments they can sink their teeth into. Maybe even a few they would actually like to read. A few that maybe don’t feel like such a mind-numbing flashback for their parents.
Because if my daughter comes home from school ten years from now having to write a paper about The Catcher in the Rye, I’m going to lose it.