High school reading is a curious thing. I'd like to think that the sudden burst of teen-appropriate fiction in the late 1990s was largely driven in by the rise of Scholastic as a business and Harry Potter as a phenomenon. This no doubt explains the many reader guides available on this wealth of writing—Amy Crawford's Great Books for High School Kids, Daniel Hahn's Ultimate Teen Book Guide, Nancy Keane's Big Book of Teen Reading Lists, John Gillespie and Catherine Barr's Best Books for High School Readers, and on and on. In this day and age, the heroes of writing for teens are Sherman Alexie, John Green, Nikki Grimes, Laurie Halse Anderson, and innumerable others—and finding these others is easy in an age of Amazon and "customers who bought this item also bought…"
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, teen reads were not so easy to find. High school reading for non-honors courses comprised Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Paul Zindel. For more smart-alecky students, the diet consisted of traditional classics, ranging from Charles Dickens' seemingly interminable (then!) David Copperfield to John Steinbeck's overlong (then!) Grapes of Wrath. The geek crowd—among which I number myself—floated into Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and the newly arrived Orson Scott Card or William Gibson. But among the authors of slightly straighter fiction that had a special cachet for high school overachievers, none stood higher than J.D. Salinger (with Kurt Vonnegut and Herman Hesse often trailing in his wake).
Salinger was the Seinfeld of his day: ideally suited for the semi-cosmopolitan children of middle-class parents with more smarts than money. While Catcher in the Rye was as inevitable then as it is today—notwithstanding recent claims of its early death in the pages of the New Yorker—the aforementioned overachievers not uncommonly preferred the pleasures of Salinger's Nine Stories and his one other published novel, Franny and Zooey, to his paean to post-pubescent adolescence.
There are some awfully pleasant associations I still have with the Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, making it impossible for any re-reading of these works not to be colored by feelings of high school smugness. (Look at me! See how smart I was reading these as a high school sophomore rather than the prescribed Catcher!)
But my continued fascination with re-reading as a 40-something books that so impressed me in my 'teens continues unabated, and while Pride and Prejudice, in my humble opinion, continues to ride high, my experience with other works has not withstood the tests of time as well. Salinger may be a case in point. For the Nine Stories, I have to confess that, by and large, these have held up well—certainly much better than many short stories of the same period. Franny and Zooey, however, does not.
It's not that it's a bad novel. It isn't. It's still pretty good. It's just, well, a little overdone, a little contrived, a bit pretentious, the kind of stuff likely to feed the ego of a precocious teen reader. One can't help but suck up the mysteries of the disturbed wunderkind, the elusive Seymour—eldest of the Glass children— whose shadow and genius hang over the novel, and particularly Franny, like a wet blanket woven from the threads of an existential angst born of reading too many Tolstoy novels and Zen maxims. Salinger is not so dumb as to ignore that fact when brother Zooey rails at sister Franny: "We're freaks, that's all. Those two bastards [eldest Seymour and next in line Buddy] got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards." The freakish standards at issue boil down to Franny's discontent with—how does one put it?—the petty qualities that in some way are exactly what make us human—which is, of course, Zooey's point.
Notwithstanding inevitable triteness of Zooey's moralizing about how to accept people for who they are, warts and all, the novel irresistibly draws us into it, turning us into the very freaks with freakish standards Zooey deplores. In fact, reading the book in high school inspired the same act of freakishness that Franny has taken on of hauling around a copy of the anonymously authored The Way of a Pilgrim, the first-person narration of a wanderer who devoutly recites the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). In Franny's knapsack is The Way of a Pilgrim; and in ours then was Franny and Zooey—at least, until the end of sophomore year when SAT exams became more important.
In the 1970s and 1980s, at least, the greatest irony of Franny and Zooey was an entirely unintentional one: namely the postmodern trick of its transformation into an exemplar of what it condemns. Even as Zooey lectures Franny—and presumably readers—on the pretension of judging too harshly all the non-"whiz kids" out there, we can't help but nod our heads with the all-too-wise Zooey and sympathize with the well-meaning Franny. Hey, smart people like Franny—and ourselves—make these kinds of mistakes all the time, and it's good thing that we're smart enough to read books like this by J.D. Salinger to teach us better.
But let's be honest, how much would we have listened really if we weren't at the same time all jazzed up by the "beaverboard" nailed up on the back of the door to Seymour and Buddy's childhood room, on which "every inch of visible surface of the board had been decorated with four somewhat gorgeous-looking columns of quotations from a variety of the world's literatures"? And there you are: lengthy quotes from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Kafka for you Western traditionalists' pearls of wisdom from Issa, the "Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna," and Mu-Mon Kwan for you intellectual mystic types into Alan Watts and Thomas Merton. If this isn't the height of pretentiousness, I'm not sure what is. And yet let's all just admit that it's cool, too. I even remember how during summer camp as a counselor in training I and others had taken to the habit, in clear imitation of this bit of intellectual self-puffery, of tracking down suitable quotes and writing on the walls of our bathroom stalls bits of geinus from Dostoyevsky and I.L. Peretz. It all certainly made for more interesting reading that "Here I sit hear broken-hearted..."
I ought perhaps add at this juncture that in some ways I repeat the criticisms leveled at the novel by Mary McCarthy in her 1962 review of the novel ("J.D. Salinger's Closed Circuit"), a wonderfully smart reading of the novel and no doubt better written and more insightful than this.
But McCarthy's criticism bears repeating, albeit contextualized by two realities: first that Franny and Zooey is a pretentious novel because its appeal is built on precocity, and being precocious is hardly a bad thing in itself. I recommended the novel to my teen daughter, and I have no qualms doing just that when I consider some of the competition, from Stephanie Meyer's teen vampire soap operas to Cecily von Ziegesar teen sleaze (she's author of the just plain awful Gossip Girl novels). Second, McCarthy wrote before she would realize how strongly the novel would tap the need of smart kids to feel smart. This is a reality that cannot be batted away and Salinger's novel, in some sense, grasps that fact. Franny and Zooey is the Jesus Prayer of the smart and sensitive soul (not the nerd, who represents an entirely different type as smartness goes). Smart kids, in their way, need their Franny and Zooey's (today these tend to be Junot Diaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao): books that bespeak their intellectual curiosity and which, in their being carried about, signal to others that their search for other intellectually curious types. And that ain't a bad thing either.