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Is ‘Catcher in the Rye’ still relevant to teens?

posted Apr 9, 2010, 8:28 AM by Lyn Bigelow   [ updated Apr 9, 2010, 5:15 PM ]

Some say book no longer relatable, while others passionately disagree

The Associated Press

updated 6:06 a.m. PT, Tues., Feb. 9, 2010

NEW YORK - Zoe Miller, 16, likes J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" so much that her copy is dog-eared from multiple readings. And she wishes her parents had spelled her name Zooey instead of Zoe, in honor of another Salinger book, "Franny and Zooey."

But Becky Johnston-Carter, 19, hates "Catcher" so much that she made a YouTube video in which she stabbed the book with a knife, then burned it in a barbecue grill.

When Salinger died last month, "The Catcher in the Rye" was heralded as the ultimate depiction of modern teenage angst. But while "Catcher" is widely taught, do 21st-century teenagers still relate to the book's moody narrator Holden Caulfield? Or has "Catcher," first published in 1951, become just another classic shoved down kids' throats?

Passions rage on both sides.

"I'm a really big fan," said Zoe, of San Marino, Calif. "My copy is totally battered and old. Holden is such a cool kid. I think he's my favorite fictional character." She treasures her dad's red hunting cap because Holden has one just like it.

On the other side of the debate, Becky says she "could never find the teenage rebellion that was supposed to be in the book." But she came up with her own form of rebellion by destroying it in a YouTube video called "I Hate Catcher in the Rye."

"I realize Holden was supposed to be a teenager, but he always seemed like a grumpy old man," said Becky, who made the video at home in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the summer before starting college at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass.

Li Goldberg, a freshman at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., says when she read "Catcher," she could hear Holden's "voice and felt him as a friend. I understood his philosophy on phonies and why he was acting the way he was."

Li recalled standing up for Holden in her high school English class after another student dismissed him as an "emo." (Note to uninformed people over 40: defines "emo" as an angsty teenager.)

"That was a lively class," said Daniel Lewis, Li's teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Lincoln, Mass., where "Catcher" is taught to ninth-graders. "It was great that there was that energy and connecting with the book."

The reading ‘challenge’
Lewis says that while teenagers still relate to Holden on a visceral, emotional level, reading "Catcher" can be a challenge.

"It does feel dated and I'm surprised it works as well as it does," Lewis said. "It's hard for a 14- or 15-year-old to put themselves in a post-World War II mindset. The language is different. Holden's voice sounds really authentic, really vivid, but it's not how a teenager sounds today. There's a lot of ambiguity, and you're not quite sure how to read this person."

Lewis says teens reading "Catcher" today need a glossary for words like "crumby," "corny" and "the grippe." And they need help understanding that when Holden says his brother is "prostituting" himself in Hollywood, he means that figuratively.

"But if you can get past that, you can start to feel really protective of the guy," Lewis said. He said teens also still relate to Holden's "deep distrust of the adult world" and his "'to hell with the world'" attitude and "lack of connection to his parents."

But Jennifer Bogut, who teaches high school English at Montrose Academy in Moscow, Idaho, says she'd "rather face root canal work" than "inflict" Holden Caulfield on anyone.

"If people hadn't been so up in arms over the language and content, it wouldn't have become the cult classic that has caused high school students to have to read it over the last several decades," she said. (Among other things, Holden describes himself as a "sex maniac" and is upset about graffiti that contains obscenities.)

Rachel Mattos, a senior at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says the book retains its shock value. "I just remember being a nervous 14-year-old in my first high school English class, startled by my teacher reading curse words out loud," she said. Overall, though, she said the book "didn't really speak to me" even though it's supposed to be about "that teenage thing of not fitting in."

Future of ‘Catcher’
Corin Warden, who teaches at a Toronto high school, thinks "Catcher" will fade from reading lists as the boomers who grew up with it retire. "That generation is leaving, and there's got to be something that has been written since that speaks as eloquently to teenagers as 'Catcher in the Rye' once did," he said.

That said, Holden's older fans can still find kids young enough to be their grandchildren to share their enthusiasm.

"I highly doubt that my generation ever calls anyone 'phonies,' but the themes and emotions in the novel are timeless," said Katie Stryker, a junior at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"Holden Caulfield was a snarky blogger before snarky bloggers existed," said Courtney Sirwatka, a literature major at the State University of New York in Purchase.

"I'm glad that they still teach it in high school," said Steve Russell, a student at Albion College in Albion, Mich., "and I hope they never stop."