Last Thursday was the first day of class for a university course I am teaching on Catholic novelists, and I remembered to ask a question that always intrigues me with a new group of students: What one book have you all read?
In other words, is there any single novel that everyone in the room has been exposed to, either for fun or in school? If we can get a supermajority (unanimity seems impossible) on one book, it gives us a common reference point for what a “classic” or “popular” novel should be. It also offers a glimpse of what is considered a classic, or at least a reliable staple of high school literature courses, something that presumably is constantly in flux.
I think we’re in luck this semester—almost everyone in the room has read The Great Gatsby, and a significant majority nodded yes to The Catcher in The Rye. There’s too many options among the Hemingway novels for one to dominate, it seems, and I refuse to ask about Dan Brown or things vampirish.
Given the geographic, cultural, and religious pluralities present in the class, I was pleasantly surprised that we could even have two books that are so familiar. But I was also reminded that nothing in the past 50 years seems to have overtaken those two books for sheer ubiquity in the American educational system. To Kill A Mockingbird was 51 years ago, and is probably the novel that comes closest in the classrooms; Catch-22 was exactly five decades ago, but as much as I want it to be read by everyone, I get the sense it is losing in popularity as a high school assignment. Lord of the Flies was almost six decades ago, and Of Mice and Men more than seven.
And what about the decades since? Who’s conjured up the 21st-century Jay Gatsby, the millennial Holden Caulfield? Every few years a new author is suggested as the next Great American Novelist, and plenty of these contenders have written books accessible to high-school-aged readers, but time is a brutal and careless thief: I saw Jay McInerney’s cameo on Gossip Girl tonight (yes, I know, shocked, shocked) and was reminded that once upon a time he, too, was a contender, with Bright Lights, Big City (1984). But when’s the last time someone mentioned Bright Lights, Big City? And tell the truth, you thought Bret Easton Ellis wrote it.
Of course, the next American Lit classic might be gathering dust while waiting to be rediscovered. Fitzgerald, after all, never lived to see Gatsby become a success—it had sold fewer than 25,000 copies at the time of his death, becoming wildly popular only several decades after its 1925 publication…
Jim Keane, S.J.