Franny & Zooey, Kenya & Holden

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Seymour once said to me – in a crosstown bus, of all places – that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.”

~J. D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey

So this semester I’m teaching Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Perhaps a more accurate way of putting this is that I am reading this book again along with my classes (two, actually; not a single student has read the book before now…it’s that…or they don’t want to admit as much).

There are variety of reasons why I love this book; maybe even more so than Catcher in the Rye and that novel, as it did for so many others around the world over many decades, stayed with me for a long time. With Catcher in the Rye, when I was young I identified with Holden’s take on phonies, etc. It wasn’t until I got older, of course, that two things happened. First, I realized that despite what a ton of critics may have written, Salinger was, and remains so at least for me, one fine stylist. Second, there’s great humor in Catcher in the Rye.

This little entry, however, is in part about Salinger and the Glass family. And I might as well put it out there now: Lane Coutell was a great example of ego and the type of personality that is furthest removed from communion with any sort of Absolute. Of course, at least how I see it, Franny & Zooey teaches us that getting closer to God—if any of us are truly capable of such a thing—will not happen through reading so-called holy books.

Having revisited these two long stories, I have become as of late enamored with the idea of characters that cross over from one story to the next. Salinger as an author was not alone in pulling this off. However, his characterization of the Glass family is one that is detailed and original and despite what some of my students think there are lessons to be learned in such a book as Franny & Zooey.

I am thinking that come fall, and the powers that be give me the green light, I want to pair Catcher in the Rye and Asali Solomon‘s Disgruntled on my next syllabus.

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These are two novels decidedly different books on the surface, but they both offer a look, in part, at disillusionment and alienation in adolescence. Moreover, these two novels deal with a young person’s place in the world—though the world Salinger presents in his novel and the one Solomon portrays in her novel exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, and while Salinger’s story of Holden Caulfield begins and ends in adolescence—a rather affluent adolescence, Solomon’s novel takes us on a journey with Kenya Curtis that is much more encompassing.

If you haven’t read Franny & Zooey, I urge you to give it a go. Chances are if you’re reading this then you may have already read Catcher in the Rye (by choice or it may have been assigned to you, even against your will, back in high school at some point). And if you haven’t read Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled please do yourself a favor. Disgruntled is a novel that, in my humble opinion, will be read for a long time to come. I can only hope that Solomon, like Salinger, offers us more stories concerning the people that populate this flawless work.

Hocus-Pocus: A New Professor Considers Poetry and The Power of Words

This week marked my first week as an adjunct English professor teaching English composition courses at two area colleges. Two things I learned this week: Among the 70 students I have between these two schools, there’s not one English major. The other, all of my students agreed that their school system has failed them.

We talked some about the reasons why they are in school. Some want to get degrees and do something worthwhile. Others are there finding themselves (by their own admission). And still others are there because it is what their parents told them they are going to do. A small contingent in each class lowered their heads and mumbled their discontent when I spoke about how some have no choice but to pursue the profession their parents have picked for them.

Among my students, I like to think that there are dreamers, artists, budding writers, musicians, singers, songwriters, and the like. And there very well may be. But the truth is this last group, those whose future has been sorted out for them, seem the most lost among the students I have the privilege of teaching. Sure, they will exposed to new ideas, different ways of thinking, some good and decidedly bad writing in all of their courses, and not just during peer review work, but reading textbooks and essays and the like.

My job, as it was explained to me by my bosses, was teach students how to write academic papers, perform research, think critically, etc. What I told my students this past week was decidedly different. My job, as someone much more wise than me once said, is to take them out of their comfort zones, bring them into the unknown, and by the end of the semester they will bounce back toward their old comfort zones, but not end up in the same place as before the semester started.

One of my classes, smaller than the other two, let out a collective moan when I introduced the book of poetry we will study later in the semester. And since the campus is nestled in a nice little section of working class Philadelphia I thought what better poet to introduce them to than Russell Edson.

But, but…what does poetry have to do with academic writing? I can see it in their faces. How will this help me become a nurse? An engineer? A physical therapist? A lawyer? A doctor? A software engineer?

In my humble estimation, it has to do with becoming more attuned to the human condition, to sharing that sacred moment of self-discovery the poet experiences, and to contemplate not what is said in a poem but everything that is not.

Yeah, but…why poetry? The question arose last week. All of my students sitting as far back in their seats as humanly possible; arms locked across their chests as attempted to shield themselves from whatever it is young students shield themselves from these days (I suspect the same things I did at their age once upon a time). Because, I told them, it has to do with language. It has to do with written language being a relatively new thing in the history of human beings. A few of them uncrossed their arms. Because it has to do with the power of words, and the effect various words have on each of us. This was the part where they leaned in closer to listen as I stood talking with them. Because, I told them, whether you believe it or not, words by their very origins have an effect on us on a subconscious level; or, more to the point, sounds have that effect. We are, after all, verbal creatures, I said. Storytellers, if you will. And no matter where your ancestors came from, everyone shares that. The power of words and their meanings, the sound of words handed down through the centuries; incantations pure and simple. And then class was over for that day.

My students may think I am crazy. And maybe I am. But I believe poetry can contribute to everyone’s lives; regardless of ethnicity, political leanings, and socio-economic background. Why more people don’t read poetry, I think, has to do with how we are all part of the instant gratification society. It’s as if something is wrong with us if we don’t want now. Poetry is often looked down upon not because it is some antiquated form of expression; no, it very much alive; but because people will cast poetry aside if they “don’t get it.” What I want for my students, at least for those two weeks when I teach Edson, is to pause long enough and forget about the gimme-gimme-gimme mentality. If I can get them to do that, for a just a short time, then maybe when they’re older they will look back and think ‘that was kind of cool.’ I just hope I don’t let them down.