Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

I’ve been teaching it for over ten years and very few books have the impact on teenagers as this one. Indeed, it’s a book written in the shadows of World War Two America; a time when the concept of the teenager didn’t really exist at all. Of course there were people of that age, but Salinger was aware, as young people came back from the War, that the world wasn’t really for them.

Holden is modelled on that disillusioned voice of teenage America, a generation breaking free from their parents and discovering their own voice. Up until then they’d left school and become their parents: dressing like them, working beside them, listening to the same music. That was about to change and Salinger’s novel was a beacon, shining a light on what was about to happen.

And, as he grew up, we see that rebellion in the face of James Dean: perhaps what Holden in his spoiled, over-protected wee world, always wanted to be. A true rebel, sneering and moody, changing the face of the cinema idol. Or Elvis, swivelling his hips and sending everyone into a frenzy: the girls who loved him; the boys who were jealous of him; the parents who feared him. Both emblematic of a new generation of teenagers breaking free from their conservative past.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Holden would have come kicking and screaming in to the Sixties. Listening to the Beatles and watching their political transformation in a decade often mistakenly remembered for their ‘swinging’ times, it was more an era of huge social division, especially in America. The Equal Rights protests, Vietnam, the Space Race with Russia all arguably led to the massive social and political divisions we see today. Holden’s determination to turn his back on everything that adults had created, ‘to go away and live in a cabin somewhere’, was the personification of that angry frustration: twenty years ahead of its time.

Holden’s fear of becoming an adult is reflected in his own narrow experience. Private boarding schools, little experience of the outside world, his only contact with adults on his three day adventure occur in sleazy hotels and nightclubs. So this is Adulthood? No thanks. Salinger decries the sullying of innocence, the way we change as adults, the way our principles are compromised. In Holden, he reflects a desire to freeze things in time: freeze the moments when we are at our most pure, most idealistic, most free.

And as we plodded through the cynical seventies, finding ourselves outside the Dakota building in New York, on the very streets Holden would walk, we imagine John Lennon dying in the street, looking up at Mark Chapman, a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in his pocket, mistakenly believing he’d done just what Holden would have wanted. Preventing his hero from changing, freezing his image in time.

The next day, somewhere, several hundred miles away, a young lad of fourteen, about to complete his paper round, would open his last copy to read about Lennon and would be hit by a car. He knew nothing of J. D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield. He did know about the Beatles. And he lay there, hearing the approaching ambulance, thinking of John Lennon and looking up to the stars.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

‘It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’

Celebrate Reading

It’s really impressive that Scotland’s First Minister places so much importance in getting kids to read. Front and centre of the approach to tackling the literacy gap, her Reading Challenge has been taken on by schools across the country. And that’s a good thing. Mostly.

When I wrote my book ‘Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere.’ I placed an awful lot of emphasis on reading as a habit. Yes, there are lots of strategies and activities you can use in the classroom, but it was that focus on how we might create the conditions for young people to be readers which was the point of the book, I hoped.

The act of reading is, without a doubt, an act of quiet reflection, a time when we sit quietly, involved in our books. Unless we can develop that habit then everything else is merely window dressing. It’s why I still begin every lesson with ten minutes of complete silence. It may be a difficult, uncomfortable truth but the only way we become readers is by sitting in silence. Any noise, any distraction and that opportunity to grab a reader is gone. It might not look like exciting teaching, but I’ll bet you’re teaching them something that will change their lives.

With World Book Day approaching, I worry that we focus too much on the activities and less on the reading. Having spent two years, almost, reading and researching for my book, I don’t believe that dressing up as a book character has ever encouraged someone to be a reader: I know it’s fun, I can understand that. I also struggle to understand how many of the strategies we see will help reluctant readers to become confident, regulars readers. Sorry. I don’t want to burst bubbles: I see young people enjoying these activities and doing amazing things with their reading. I merely worry that they’ll remember the dress up, the blog, the film they made more than the books they read.

So I’d be much more comfortable if we developed the habit first. And, unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you view it, creating the conditions for them to read daily is the only way. I’d prefer to see the First Minister’s Reading Challenge highlight how long we spend reading rather than how many books young people read. I’d rather we focused on spending money getting good quality books all over our classes, falling into their laps. I’d rather teachers gave up time to read in front of them, not just classroom readers, but books of their own. Seeing adults reading can be transformational.

Then, when we get there, when we have classrooms filled with confident, regular readers, by all means, celebrate that. Let them dress up for the day but insist on book characters, not film adaptations. Let them write about their books, if they want. But try and celebrate their reading along the way. Their ability to sit quietly with a book will last so much longer than a fun day. That they may become life long readers we can only hope. But we can surely give them a leg up allowing the way.