October 26, 2010


A friend dropped by for tea a few days ago. He’s not retired. He came to visit on his lunch hour. I serve as his surrogate mother as his died when he was young. He spends the time bringing me up-to-date on his family —a wife, three daughters (ages 10 – 16) and a dog.

At the moment, he’s concerned about oldest girl who will be dating soon. He recited the speech he would deliver when that day arrived I assured him it was a fine one and he looked relieved. “After all,” he chuckled by way of explanation, “I was a boy. I know how they think.”

Our conversation drifted next to “Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Parents have to give their consent before students are allowed to read it. He wondered what I thought of the book. I told him it written for adults but expressed teen age angst and rebellion so well, it became a cult piece for the young. The material, written in 1951, is tamer than what can be found on TV or at the movies, I added.

Choosing good literature for young people is difficult because the public’s notion of what’s good or what’s bad is all over the map. Naturally educators worry about criticism.

Their concern is real, but I fear a greater danger: That serious literature is being introduced before its time. Were I in charge of curriculum, I’d levy a fine on any school that taught Shakespeare or Hardy or Dickens (except for “A Christmas Carol”) before the age of 18.      

No, I do not write tongue-in-cheek. Nature never envisioned classrooms. It designed the young to be active and to learn by doing. They should be set free to test their skills, not set to pondering the meaning of “To be or not to be” — which they will consider soon enough, possibly on some foreign battlefield.  But the very young, so certain of their immortality, simply cannot contemplate the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Instead, they will giggle or pass a note to the Homecoming Queen seated across the aisle. And frankly, why should they? 

There will be time to sit by a fire reading when one is older…when one is old. I think it folly to believe the joy of literature comes with habit, like brushing one’s teeth. It comes with curiosity and that expresses itself when it is ready.