Thursday Interview: Mr. Roberts

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– Mr. Roberts, you were my first English teacher, or rather the first who showed me the joy to be had from reading. In fact, I see you as the sum of all the teachers who nurtured my love of reading. What made you choose that profession?

– The desire, simply, to transmit my own love of reading to my pupils. There are many, I know, who never responded as I hoped, but even if I succeeded with only a few, it was worth it.

– And where did your own love of books come from?

– A teacher, just as yours did. People can discover books on their own, but young minds benefit from guidance, and I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher myself. The first book to astound me, transport me to a world I knew nothing of, was The Grapes of Wrath. After which I devoured the whole of Steinbeck. Without a teacher, I might not have discovered it till much later. Teachers also introduced me to Hemingway, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and on this side of the Atlantic, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, and of course, George Orwell.

– And I remember you speaking to us about them. But the book you chose to draw us in with was The Catcher in the Rye.

– Of course! And it worked, didn’t it?

– I read everything Salinger wrote after that. Such a shame he didn’t publish more!

– It was a set text in schools the world over. But despite its phenomenal success, it’s come in for huge criticism too. Consider this from Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post:

Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as “a symbol of purity and sensitivity” (as The Oxford Companion to American Literature puts it) when he’s merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one? That last question actually is easily answered: The Catcher in the Rye can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. […] The Catcher in the Rye touches adolescents’ emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It’s easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.

– Harsh indeed. And what’s your answer to that?

– I stand by my choice. The book isn’t badly written – the voice captures the adolescent thought process brilliantly. And it didn’t make it easier for me, on the contrary. I tried to get you to look at Holden critically, not simply identify with him. And that was a challenge with boys your age.

– Yes, I’m not sure I managed the critical bit. But I’d like to thank you anyway, you and teachers of literature all over the world, for doing all you could to open our minds to other worlds and ways of seeing, to the power and the magic of stories. And not just from the English speaking world, of course. There’s a great initiative here that invites us to read a book from every continent in 2015.

– You’re most welcome. Long may the power of stories continue.