I have a friend who loves to read as much as I do, and we often talk about books.
I recently mentioned the science-fiction classic “Dune” and how much I loved it but said my son Hank had tried to read it and just couldn’t get into it.
“Well,” said my friend, “if you tried to read it now, you might not like it as much as you did 40 years ago.”
“That’s for sure!” I replied.
Take “Catcher In The Rye,” which I read at 16 and thought was the greatest book ever written. It had everything an angst-ridden self-centered teenager could relate to: emotional pain, failure, foul language, bad behavior, sex talk and ridiculous adults, all overlaid with a thick patina of aimlessness. I loved it.
Enthralled by author J.D. Salinger, I then eagerly devoured “Franny and Zooey” and enjoyed it immensely. I even gave an oral book report on it in my junior year English class.
The teacher was Mrs. Crowell, a cranky old crone with breath that reeked of the coffee and Camel straights she sucked down in the teachers’ lounge.
As far as we could tell, she had probably been a classmate of James Fennimore Cooper and was mad that he was a famous author, albeit dead, while she was stuck dealing with us and was still alive (although pushing 150 or so).
I concluded my book report by saying “I liked this book very much,” to which Mrs. Crowell snapped, “Well, you’re wrong. It’s a terrible book.”
I was shocked – shocked, I tell you! How dare she tell me I was wrong? It was my opinion and I was entitled to it. “Humph!” I thought, as I flounced back to my desk.
Except – as I know now, she was right.
When Hank was a teenager and not much of a reader (he is now, praise the Lord!), I bought him “Catcher In The Rye.” He read about three pages of it, pronounced it the best book he had ever read, and put it back on the shelf.
“Humph!” I thought one day when I saw it sitting there. I picked it up and – oh my God! – I immediately began channeling my inner Mrs. Crowell.
“Catcher,” when read by an adult, is terrible: rambling, pointless, devoid of morality, full of unnecessary swearing. All the adult characters were one-dimensional idiots. Holden Caulfield, the hero of my youth, had turned into a shallow dolt: I wanted to slap him upside the head.
I have no desire whatsoever to reread “Franny and Zooey.” As another critic put it: “‘Franny and Zooey’ is a stagey, motionless, self-indulgent series of rants from two solipsistic characters whose high opinion of themselves is topped only by an author who can’t stop himself praising their intelligence and good looks.”
Senior English was much better because the teacher was Miss Alice Lauterbur. She was a character who dressed like it was the 1940s: hats, white gloves, and stockings with seams.
On the first day of class, she informed us that we were all much smarter than she was and asked for our help as she tried to keep up with us throughout the year. No wonder we loved her!
She also had a sense of humor. It was on her movie screen that someone taped a Playboy centerfold so when she yanked the screen down, “Miss April 1969” was displayed in all her prurient glory.
Miss Lauterbur feigned horror – “Oh my! You’re going to get me fired!” — but I always imagined her in the teachers’ lounge saying, “Somebody does this every year. Personally, I thought February 1967 was better.”
But as much as I loved her, I did not love her vocabulary words: 100 a semester, to be neatly printed, then spelled phonetically (Schwa sounds! Accents! Macrons!), identified as a part of speech, defined and used in a sentence.
It would not have been a difficult task if I had done even one or two a night but I always waited until the last minute so I could sit at the kitchen table, alone, long into the night, copying down the hated vocabulary words. Since, as a reader, I already knew what the words meant, I regarded the task as pointless busy work.
And in that case, even my young self was absolutely correct.
So here’s to the teachers, past and present, who inspired us – and corrected us. You are great, and you deserve to enjoy some time off this summer.
With no busywork!
Got something Sunny Schubert should know? Call her at 222-1604 or e-mail email@example.com.