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Defending Holden

The Holden Caulfield Fan Club

Years ago, when the College Board published its version of the "books every high school student should read," they included "The Short List." I no longer see either list online, but I have a hard copy of the latter:

Jane Eyre
The Mill on the Floss
Invisible Man
The Great Gatsby

The Scarlet Letter
The Odyssey
Oedipus Rex

Gulliver's Travels
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I agree with the boldfaced titles. Based on my experiences as a student and as a teacher, however, I would replace the remaining four with

The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)
No Exit (Sartre)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
The Stranger (Camus) or Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky) *

I'm unsurprised by inquiries about my inclusion of The Catcher in the Rye. Folks approaching the discussion from what they perceive as a "classical tradition" sometimes pooh-pooh Holden's smarmy, smutty, smug (and ultimately sad) retreat from the world of "phonies," dismissing it as somehow (for lack of a better word) unworthy. In fact, dismissing Holden (and, by extension, Salinger) is something of a literary sport. In "J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly" (Washington Post, October 18, 2004), for example, Jonathan Yardley argues, "The combination of Salinger's execrable prose and Caulfield's jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil." He notes later, however, that while it is "a maladroit, mawkish novel," its popularity and influence are inarguable.

Indeed. Perhaps the popularity and influence have something to do with the fact that Holden's narrative resonates. From the classrooms of a tony suburban high school into an undergrad honors seminar in a small liberal arts college over to the cramped, dirty classroom of a juvenile detention center and into my own livingroom, Holden bounds. In my twenty-five years of teaching, he has captivated, angered, and alternately dismayed and delighted. Most recently, the inconsolable, bereft, and grieving Holden has elicited deep and abiding sympathy.

Some might argue that just about any book can provoke students and yield discussion, but I'd counter that this is really only true when you're working with readers. I haven't always worked with readers, though, and with non-readers (or less than ideal readers), a deafening sound of silence often follows an enthusiastic teacher's inquiries about the latest reading assignment when, for myriad reasons, a book has failed to connect with the students (or vice versa).

Oh, sure, you can lead, cajole, and coach responses. And I did. But with Holden? I never needed to. He spoke to (shouted at!) both readers and non-readers alike, with little to no interpretation from me. Yes, the students fairly exploded with questions, opinions, assertions, and reactions. Call me crazy, but I love that sort of visceral response to literature, so for this alone, Holden deserves a spot in my top ten.

When my own children met Holden, they proceeded to stitch bits of him to bits of Harrison Bergeron and to parts of Mercutio and even Hamlet and then basted that to scraps of Pip and threads of, yes, Pi, and so on. To observe them so easily synthesizing what they read with what they have read before, to see characters roam so freely and knowingly in the rooms of their imaginations — nodding acquaintances who share secrets — is one of the most remarkable privileges of the reading, thinking, teaching, learning life.

And so Holden joins Huck. And Horatio. And the trio of eyelid-less sinners of Sartre's No Exit. And so on.

Because these characters talk to the readers I've met.

And they talk to me.

* Naturally, I find it difficult to limit myself to ten: What about Great Expectations (Dickens), The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas), and Heart of Darkness (Conrad)? I suspect this is why the College Board's list comprised one hundred and one titles. Just ten? So difficult.