The summer before starting high school, my son and two of his friends, let’s call them Theo, Grace and Maggie, got a little self-conscious about sitting in on their library’s adult book group, trying to talk with adults, in an adult way, about adult books. They decided to start a reading group of their own, for kids their age. So they met at the local Borders and wandered the aisles of young adult fiction, finally choosing The Catcher in the Rye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Of Mice and Men for their first summer’s book line-up.
They made a flier and distributed it at school and at swim team. Theo and I researched the authors and came up with questions for each meeting. Grace and her mother, Carey, handled meeting logistics, communication and food. That first summer, 6-10 kids joined them every month to discuss a book. At the end of the summer, it occurred to them that they had chosen only books that had been challenged or banned in school districts or libraries.
There had to be a reason for that coincidental choice. There was. These books were all interesting, edgy and a little bit intellectually dangerous. Just like the group. Theo and Grace decided to make themselves over into the Banned Book Club.
For the next three summers, Theo and Grace and a good corps of reading friends (Curt, Kayla, Alycia, Donny, Allie and Rudi were the regulars) and their mom-members (Carey and me) read a banned book every month, talking about the authors, the books’ literary merits, their connection to real life and to other banned books, why the group thought each book had been banned or challenged, and to what degree they agreed or disagreed with the challengers’ complaints.
Some of the challenges they laughed at; had The Scarlet Letter been banned just to make it more appealing to teenagers who would never choose it otherwise? Other challenges they debated seriously; really, would any of them allow their future children to read Lolita?
After their fourth summer of the Banned Books Club, together they had read twelve great books, twelve banned books, twelve books that made a difference in their thinking. Not only did they all get pretty good SAT scores, but they also got a lot more of the inside jokes on The Simpsons.
Here is the background information and questions we used for our very first talk.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.
By the way: According to FBI profilers, this book is often found in the possession of serial killers. This book has been banned or challenged by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including molestation and mental illness. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. – J.D. Salinger
Who is this J. D. Salinger?
• Jerome David Salinger, born New York City, Jan. 1, 1919; parents were successful importers of Kosher cheese; lived in beautiful apartment on Park Avenue.
• Attended many prep schools, as well as Valley Forge Military Academy (1934-36) (not unlike Holden Caulfield’s school history).
• 1937 to 1938, studied at Ursinus College and New York University, graduating from neither.
• Fell in love with Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, writing each other daily letters; was shocked when she married much older actor, Charlie Chaplin.
• Drafted into the infantry in WWII and involved in Normandy invasion; fellow soldiers called him brave, a hero.
• In war-time Europe, wrote stories, met Ernest Hemingway, was hospitalized for stress.
• 1945, married French doctor Sylvia; later divorced.
• 1951 published Catcher in the Rye.
• 1955 married Claire Douglas, Radcliffe student and daughter of British art critic Robert Langston Douglas, insisting she drop out of college. Couple had children, Margaret and Mathew.
•Divorced again in 1967, retreating further into isolated world.
• 1972, age 53, had a year-long affair with 18-year old writer Joyce Maynard, asking her to drop out of Yale.
• Twenty five years later, Maynard put Salinger’s letters to her up for auction, publicizing tell-all book, At Home in the World, about relationship with what she sees as an abusive older author.
• Salinger’s third wife, Colleen O’Neill, is a nurse and quiltmaker.
• Catcher sells approximately 250,000 copies annually, with no author publicity, not even a photograph, in connection with book.
• To director Elia Kazan’s request to produce The Catcher in the Rye on Broadway, Salinger answered: “I cannot give my permission. I fear Holden wouldn’t like it.”
• Sean Connery’s character, Forrester, in the 2000 film Finding Forrester, was loosely based on Salinger.
What do you think about The Catcher in the Rye?
1. What seems normal about Holden Caulfield? Why would that seem normal for a high school boy? What seems abnormal about Holden? Why do we see that as abnormal?
2. What do you think about Holden’s view of adults? Does it match your view? Why or why not?
3. Holden has a hard time “fitting in.” Does this make him a good narrator? Why/why not? How does it affect you that your narrator remains outside his world? Does someone like Holden choose to be alienated, or does the world choose that for him?
4. How does Holden feel about girls and about his relationship to them? Do you know anything about that?
5. Why does Holden have a breakdown?
6. At the end of the novel, Holden recognizes that you have to let the kids on the carousel reach for the gold ring. What does this mean?
7. Why does Holden get the title poem (by Robert Burns) wrong –“If a body meet a body,” not “If a body catch a body.” Why does Salinger put that in the title?
8. What other books, songs, films or characters do you know that seem somehow connected with Catcher in the Rye, or with Holden Caulfield?
9. Why is it that FBI profilers have identified carrying a copy of this book as part of a pattern that suggests a man is capable of serial crimes? Does Holden himself seem like someone on the brink of criminality? How do you interpret this?
10. Why do you think this book ranks so high on the banned books list? What are some people worried will happen when teenagers read it?