There has been an online debate of sorts going on in Small Town. The newspaper lets you comment on certain stories online as long as you don't get nasty or call people names. They don't always monitor that very well, but they try.
It all started two weeks ago when a local minister wrote a letter to the paper complaining that his 16-year-old son was forced to read The Catcher in the Rye for an English assignment. The boy didn't get far into the book before discovering language that he thought was inappropriate for him to read, so he handed the book to his father, shame-faced and disgusted. Daughter No. 2 thinks the kid just wanted to get out of reading the book, but it's hard to say for sure. Anyway, the father was incensed. He's never read the book, of course, but after flipping through the first chapter, he was highly offended, enough to write the paper and complain. I don't know if he complained to the school or the teacher, who would gladly give the kids something else to read as an option. That's their policy.
I couldn't believe that in the year 2008 people are still complaining about this book, especially given all the other issues we can complain about in this world. The pastor could have funneled his passions into offering help for the kid who wants to blow up the school, or he could have focused his attentions on the homeless shelter and the kids who live there. But no—he's angry because his kid has to read a book with cussing in it, even though the cusser wants to protect all the innocent children in the world from harm and is only looking for something in life that is not phony.
The editor of the paper waited a week for someone to write a letter in defense of reading The Catcher in the Rye, but when no one did, he wrote his own and printed it in Sunday's edition a week ago. Were there online comments in response? To date, there are 84 comments, although quite a few by the same people, myself included, going back and forth debating the reading of this book and the surrounding issues.
There are people who think it's a worthy assignment that should be viewed in its entirety, not just critiqued because of the raw language. But to that, some people think there are other books just as valuable without the language. When pressed for specific titles, though, not one of them offered a reading list.
There are people who think that when a public school teacher assigns a book like this without sending a letter home first, he is usurping the parents' authority and is trying to do the parenting himself. He should stick to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic and stop trying to teach morals or lack of them. Some high school kids picked up on this complaint right away and wrote in to say they thought the book was appropriate and did not teach them how to behave but how to think and see the world through someone else's perspective. And since this someone else is a 16-year-old boy on the cusp of growing up, they can relate even if they don't take off for New York City for a few days and get drunk and cuss like a sailor from the 50s. They were all quick to point out that the language they hear in the hallways of their school these days is far more raw than the language that comes from Holden. The minister's son wrote in to say he has never heard such language as is printed in the book, but I know the school he attends. He's lying.
There are people who think that assigning this book and defending it in the paper shows just how far Christianity has fallen on our gauge of right and wrong. Of course, that led to a heated discussion with some people believing religion of any kind has no place in the public schools, with others crying foul and saying the Bible should be taught outright. There are quite a few Christian teachers in this particular school—I know some of them personally—but one of the mothers in town using the screen name of "Truth" said this: "a true Christian teacher would never allow a teenager to read or use such profane reading material." I wanted to call her a pharisee, but I was pretty sure that would violate the rules of engagement in this forum. Plenty of people reminded her this is not a parochial school but a public one with students from all sorts of religions and with no religion at all.
And so the debate went with no satisfaction for anyone. With issues like these, no one will ever be swayed by the opposition. We all just want to speak our piece and make the other people shut up as quickly as possible. A wise commentator suggested we all just agree to disagree, but it didn't stop the volleying. The hullabaloo over this book is nothing new. The Catcher In the Rye is on the list of the ten most banned books in recent history, and conservative parents have been clamouring over it since it was first published, which has probably led more students to read it than if they had just ignored the thing. J. D. Salinger has not been one to speak publicly, but here is what he said about his now-classic novel:
"I'm aware that many of my friends will be saddened and shocked, or shock-saddened, over some of the chapters in The Catcher in the Rye. Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all my best friends are children. It's almost unbearable for me to realize that my book will be kept on a shelf out of their reach."
It's still on the shelf in Small Town, and occasionally in the hands of students and adults alike, but it's an ongoing battle to keep it that way. I wonder...when Small Town Paper next prints an article about some issue that really matters, will there be 84 responses of concern or praise or any passionate debate at all?