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I read banned booksPosted Tuesday, February 16, 2010, at 8:01 PM
At least, that's how Sister Mary Alice saw it.
As the oldest child of four in a military family, an Irish Catholic one to boot, my life was bounded on all sides by rules. And at the very top of the list of rules was the most important one, the one that must never be violated:
You must not do anything, anywhere, at any time and especially NOT AT SCHOOL to cause any trouble.
I was 14-going-on-15, at that awkward stage where nerdy kids like me begin to recognize the true dimensions of their nerdiness and to despair of ever overcoming it. My goal every day was to melt into the landscape and draw as little attention to myself as possible. Although there is deafening laughter from all quarters when I say this today, I was so quiet, particularly when called upon in class, that teachers were forever reminding me to speak up.
My grades were good. When it came to The Rules, I bent over backwards to obey them. I certainly didn't color outside the lines, or ever talk back to anyone -- absolutely not to my parents and certainly not to my teachers.
Like nerdy kids everywhere, I read voraciously. I read absolutely everything that fell under my eyes, including, of course, the backs of cereal boxes, and when I was bored and had nothing else to read, I would pick up a volume of our World Book encyclopedia and read whatever seemed interesting.
My parents were readers, too, especially my father. So it wasn't altogether surprising, although it wasn't something he did often, that he handed me a slim paperback book one Sunday afternoon and said, "Read this and tell me what you think."
I looked down at the book and read the title aloud.
"The Catcher in the Rye," I read. "What's it about?"
"Just read it and see what you think," he said.
Dutifully, I sat down and started to read. And was immediately bored witless.
When the book was published in 1951, a reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Mr. Salinger has an unusual talent, to put it quite inadequately, and "The Catcher In the Rye" is one of the most unusual novels in a long time."
And on the other coast, The New Yorker said, "A brilliant, funny, meaningful novel."
Obviously, we had different standards.
I'm a fast reader, but it was impossible to speed through that book. So the next morning I plopped it on top of my books and took it to school with me.
Holy Family Catholic School, that is, staffed by Benedictine nuns.
Sister Mary Alice, our principal, was standing at the doorway, as always, greeting students as they came in from the cold.
"Good morning, Kathleen," she said.
"Morning 'stir," I mumbled in my usual barely-audible fashion.
And then she gasped.
I stopped dead in my tracks, wondering what rule I had broken without knowing it, as she reached down to pluck the book from the top of the pile in my arms.
Holding it in two fingers, she dangled it in front of my face.
"And where did you get THIS?" she hissed, red-faced and angry.
"My father gave it to me," I whispered, speaking directly to the floor and the tops of my shoes.
"Speak up, Kathleen," she thundered from her vantage point far above me. She was the tallest nun I'd ever seen and I was the next-to-smallest person in my class
"My father gave it to me," I whispered again, looking now at the tops of her shoes and wishing for the earth to open up and drop me directly into hell.
"For the love of God, Kathleen, speak up!" she demanded, which rendered me speechless.
"Into my office," she said, when I didn't respond. This was not going well, I thought.
In all my years of school, I had never seen the inside of the principal's office. Oh, I'd heard about it, but Goody Two-Shoes that I was, I'd never been sent to the office for discipline.
She gestured to a chair and I sank into it, grateful for the support to my now-rubbery legs.
"Now," she said, "Tell me where you got this disgusting book. And do not lie to me."
"My father gave it to me," I said again, this time with just a speck of courage.
"Kathleen, I know your father and he would never give you a book like this to read. If you insist on repeating that lie, I am going to have to call him."
I would like to say it was a defining moment, but it really wasn't. I didn't suddenly decide to become an outspoken, obnoxious teenager. But I knew I wasn't a liar.
"Then call him," I said. "And he will tell you."
I barely got those words out. Talking back to any adult was one of the greatest sins. Talking back to a nun ... well ... eternal punishment was now a definite possibility.
"You can be sure I will do that," she said, and then dismissed me to my classroom.
There was whispering when I took my seat in Sister Verona's class. I tried very hard to be even more invisible for the remainder of the day.
Just before it was time to go home, Sister Alice called me to her office again and handed me the book.
"Do not bring this filthy book back to school. If you must read it, then read it at home, and don't be giving it to any of your classmates," she said, and sent me on my way.
When I got home, my father told me he had spoken to her.
"She's pretty upset that I gave you that book," he said. "She thinks it's dirty."
"Dirty?" I said. "What's dirty about it? I think it's just boring," and handed it to him.
"So did you finish it?" he said.
"Nope," I said. "I didn't like it."
Well, that's not really true.
The thing is, I didn't understand it well enough at 14 to like or dislike it. I suspect that Holden's adventure with a prostitute is one of the things that offended Sister Alice the most. She needn't have worried. At that age, I had no idea what a prostitute was and a trip to the dictionary was not enlightening. I missed entirely any reference to homosexuality, and in any case, wouldn't have understood that, either.
Maybe one of these days, when I have nothing else more pressing to do, I'll take another stab at reading it. I suspect I will be as bored now as I was then.
"The Catcher in the Rye" still ruffles feathers. In 2005, it was one of the most-challenged books in libraries, according to the American Library Association. Author J. D. Salinger's death in January has brought renewed interest in the book and will probably also renew interest in banning it. All that succeeds in doing is making it more popular; it consistently sells about 250,000 copies a year. Controversial it may be, and boring to teenage girl nerds, but it's profitable.
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.