Zoe Miller, 16, likes J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” so much that her copy is dog-eared from multiple readings.
She wishes her parents had spelled her name Zooey instead of Zoe, in honor of another Salinger book, “Franny and Zooey.”
But Becky Johnston-Carter, 19, hates “Catcher” so much that she made a YouTube video in which she stabbed the book with a knife, defaced it, had her father saw it in half, burned it in a barbecue grill – then finally flushed it down a toilet.
When Salinger died late last month, “The Catcher in the Rye” was heralded as the ultimate depiction of modern teenage angst.
But while it’s widely taught, do 21st-century teenagers still relate to the book’s moody narrator, Holden Caulfield? Or has “Catcher,” first published in 1951, become just another classic shoved down kids’ throats?
Passions rage on both sides.
“I’m a really big fan,” says Miller, of San Marino, Calif. “My copy is totally battered and old. Holden is such a cool kid. I think he’s my favorite fictional character.”
She treasures her dad’s red hunting cap because Caulfield had one just like it.
On the other side of the debate, Johnston-Carter says she “could never find the teenage rebellion that was supposed to be in the book.”
But she came up with her own form of rebellion by destroying it in her eight-minute video, titled “I Hate Catcher in the Rye.”
“I realize Holden was supposed to be a teenager, but he always seemed like a grumpy old man,” says Johnston-Carter, who made the video at home in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the summer before starting college at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass.
Li Goldberg, a freshman at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., says when she read “Catcher,” she could hear Caulfield’s “voice and felt him as a friend. I understood his philosophy on phonies and why he was acting the way he was.”
She recalls standing up for Caulfield in her high school English class after another student dismissed him as “emo.” (Note to uninformed people over 40: UrbanDictionary.com defines “emo” as an angsty teenager.)
“That was a lively class,” says Daniel Lewis, Li’s teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Lincoln, Mass., where “Catcher” is taught to ninth-graders. “It was great that there was that energy and connecting with the book.”
Lewis says that while teenagers still relate to Caulfield on a visceral, emotional level, reading “Catcher” can be a challenge.
“It does feel dated and I’m surprised it works as well as it does,” he says. “It’s hard for a 14- or 15-year-old to put themselves in a post-World War II mindset.
“The language is different. Holden’s voice sounds really authentic, really vivid, but it’s not how a teenager sounds today.”
Lewis says teens reading “Catcher” today need a glossary for words like “crumby,” “corny” and “the grippe.”
“But if you can get past that, you can start to feel really protective of the guy,” he says.
Teens also still relate to Caulfield’s “deep distrust of the adult world” and his “to hell with the world”’ attitude and “lack of connection to his parents.”
But Jennifer Bogut, who teaches high school English at Montrose Academy in Moscow, Idaho, says she’d “rather face root canal work” than “inflict” Holden Caulfield on anyone.
“If people hadn’t been so up in arms over the language and content, it wouldn’t have become the cult classic that has caused high school students to have to read it over the last several decades,” she says.
(Among other things, Caulfield describes himself as a “sex maniac” and is upset about graffiti that contains obscenities.)
Corin Warden, who teaches at a Toronto high school, thinks “Catcher” will fade from reading lists as the boomers who grew up with it retire.
“That generation is leaving, and there’s got to be something that has been written since that speaks as eloquently to teenagers as ‘Catcher in the Rye’ once did,” he says.
That said, the book’s older fans can still find kids young enough to be their grandchildren to share their enthusiasm.
“Holden Caulfield was a snarky blogger before snarky bloggers existed,” says Courtney Sirwatka, a literature major at the State University of New York in Purchase.
“I’m glad that they still teach it in high school,” adds Steve Russell, a student at Albion College in Albion, Mich., “and I hope they never stop.”