In So Long, Holden at Slate, Jessica Roake argues that Catcher in the Rye is dated and of little interest to contemporary students and suggests a replacement. I'm totally with her assessment of Catcher in the Rye, but, then, I've never liked it. Where I break with her is in the need to replace it in high school classrooms with another so-called "coming of age" novel. With all the literature out there--YA and adult--why is it so urgent that schools hunt for a novel to replace one Roake describes as expressing the "fundamental teenage anguish" "that in life, phonies abound and beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose."
First off, I would argue that the fundamental teenage anguish is struggling to accept the passage of time and life and determining how they will live the life and time that they have in a way that will provide meaning and some kind of happiness for them. The last couple of generations have grown up on TV. They learned about phonies at Mom's knee. "...beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose?" That's a very particular life view that I don't think is necessarily universal.
I can't make any pretense of knowing what adolescents need to read or enjoy reading. But I do think coming-of-age novels, which tend to be ones, in my experience, that have as their theme introducing young characters to the adult world of death, sex, and general misery, are something adult readers embrace. It's as if the coming-of-age novel is a gateway to the adult world, a world that is oh, so important because of death, sex, and general misery. This is the real world and childhood and adolescence is some kind of fantasy that the young must pass out of to become adults, adulthood being what really matters. Young people may not be so enamored of that concept.
God knows, I am all too aware of the death and general misery aspects of adulthood. (Notice how I'm being coy about sex?) But let's get over ourselves and move on.
I would also like to point out that when essayists write about Catcher in the Rye and the universal experience of reading and loving it, they are talking about a subgroup of the population that experienced a particular college prep sort of education. Not everyone over the age of 40 has read Catcher in the Rye. Not even close. I would argue that there are a lot of people who haven't even heard of it.
Hey, in the world I grew up in, rye was just something people drank.