Catcher in the Rye is being talked about a lot these days. (Perhaps it’s time I read that book…) I feel that I can understand Salinger’s feelings and I think he has a legitimate grip. What I think needs further evaluation is the relevancy of Catcher in today’s literary canon.
Some books, like Catcher are time sensitive: Notes from Undergroundwhat I think is Dostoyevsky's most intelligent work , and the more recent The Reluctant Fundamentalist are two others that come to mind. It is not to say that these books are irrelevant to later generations but the bulk of their clout is going to be felt be readers at the time of the works writing. While I always think that Catcher will be regarded as a great work for reasons I hope to experience for myself shortly, I do think it’s star is fading.
Salinger is ninety and in declining physical health. The readers that the novel so heavily affected aren’t to far behind. With this passing of a generation I wonder about the credence given to a work like Catcher. To those who read it within a few years of it’s publication especially readers around Holden's age they were moved and felt they found a spokesman of sorts: some one who thought like them and expressed everything they couldn’t and acted as they wish they had the guts to do. Those same readers make the best teachers to todays generation when it comes to explaining the novel and it’s appeal. Because of that strong connection and identification that they experienced they can better relate the message of the novel to other young readers. It’s a bit like listening to someone in their late fifties tell you about the how great the Beatles were. (Well perhaps not, Salinger’s writing actually does have substantial merit.)
My contention with classics of the arts in any medium: be it literature, music, or visual art--is that in today’s age of declining interest in classical arts the classics do more damage than good. We make kids today read Catcher and Wuthering Heights because they are great and everyone should appreciate their quality. Twenty years ago that may not have been a big deal but today getting kids excited to read a book is a chore in itself; tell them they are reading a “Classic of Western Literature” and watch the eyes roll and try to gauge their boredom in metric tons. What faster way to turn off interest in reading is there?
If we are going to force kids to read give them something they want. Let them read all the pulp fiction that they can get their hands on. Let them enjoy it before we turn them off to it. Everyone’s taste change in time, some even mature. You can’t force escargot on an eight year old and demand that they like because it is fine dining. (An extreme example; I know.)
Furthermore, has there been absolutely nothing of note written since Catcher that may have literay merit and appeal to todays youth? Perhaps coming of age stories are dead--I sure as hell don’t like the genre. Perhaps children today come of age earlier in life than in Caulden’s time. Yeah, I can see how the internet would work like that.
I’m not saying bury the classics but with the constant forcible promotion of, “This is a great book goddamnit!” I feel we are doing more to stunt the interest in reading than promote it.