SCOTT SIMON, host:
Until thousands, maybe millions of students will read J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," this year, it will be read and treasured by many, barely read and mostly forgotten by many others. But one thing is for sure: it'll be assigned. High school teachers have been assigning the story of Holden Caulfield - his anger, angst, expulsion from prep school and struggles to make sense of his life in New York - since John F. Kennedy was in the White House. They know that book. They have supporting materials to pass out. They know how to teach it.
But Anne Trubek, a professor of English at Oberlin College, argues in the current issue of Good magazine that the book ought to be replaced in curriculum. Professor Trubek joins us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thank you so much for being with us.
Professor ANNE TRUBEK (Rhetoric & Composition and English, Oberlin College): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: So, what's your problem with "The Catcher in the Rye"?
Prof. TRUBEK: I don't have a problem with "The Catcher in the Rye." But it's often assigned as the end of the year, as it were, contemporary novel that's supposed to resonate with high school students. But as you mentioned, it was published in 1951 and it's not so contemporary anymore, and I think we should start looking at what novels might do a better job of reaching high schools students and talking about their experiences.
SIMON: Let me try to make the case for "The Catcher in the Rye" for you.
Prof. TRUBEK: OK.
SIMON: Beginning with the fact that this book used to get banned a lot. I found that very alluring.
Prof. TRUBEK: Absolutely. And it's still is banned in some school districts. But I think that most American teenagers will find it rather tame and sort of laughable to things that were once considered so controversial.
SIMON: You say in this article in Good magazine that as a matter of fact, "The Catcher in the Rye" supplanted David Copperfield when it was included in a lot of reading lists.
Prof. TRUBEK: Well, Salinger begins by having Holden say that he's not going to rehearse all that David Copperfield crap, and he really sort of takes a potshot at Dickens by sort of positioning his novel as a more contemporary, coming-of-age tale, and sort of saying, look, kids have been forced to read this text forever - that's sort of what Holden is saying - and I'm going to cut through all that and be something that's going to speak to you, contemporary readers of this novel. So Salinger actually positions himself as a replacement for Copperfield.
SIMON: Aside from the fact that Holden Caulfield, you know, never used a cell phone or went to a Starbuck's, what in your judgment makes his experience no longer pertinent?
Prof. TRUBEK: Well, I think his experience of adolescent alienation is pertinent, but he's also an upper-class, white man who's going to a prep school. And so he's from a very elite background and many of the people who first wrote about how he was such a universal voice for American teenagers came from that same class and had the power and prestige to write about him. And people who have different backgrounds may not have felt the same at the time and may not feel the same today.
SIMON: But it's a classic, isn't it? Books that have been published and might seem to be more pertinent that have been published in the last five or six years, can't really be called classics yet, can't they?
Prof. TRUBEK: Well, actually, "Catcher in the Rye" was considered an instant classic. It was vaunted to the stature of classic only a few years after it was published. Classics are man-made, and no reason why we couldn't do the same with some of the things that have been written in the last 10 years.
SIMON: You suggest some books.
Prof. TRUBEK: I think Jeffrey Eugenides has a book called "The Virgin Suicides." Junot Diaz, whose novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," won the Pulitzer this year, has a book of short stories called "Drown." My students all were telling me about this book called "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." That was one that they all thought was a great novel about their experiences.
SIMON: Professor, thanks very much.
Prof. TRUBEK: Thank you.
SIMON: Anne Trubek, professor of Rhetoric & Composition and English at Oberlin College, speaking to us from member station WCPN, the idea stream in Cleveland. For more of Professor Trubek's contemporary coming-of-age lead picks, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.