Everyone has something to offer when talking books.
What were the author’s intentions? Do they matter in the grand scheme of things? And is there a secret message only I can decipher because they were speaking to me and me alone?
It’s not easy arriving at any one single answer when reading tastes are so personal. But at least we can give you a head start.
So, what are the books that always bring up heated debate?
Mark Twain – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
The question remains; should we expose young readers to the book’s racist language? Is there value in teaching its contents to younger readers?
This classic sequel to ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ takes place on the Mississippi River. Set in the 1830s, thirteen-year-old Huckleberry Finn befriends Jim, who’s running from slavery. Forming a bond over many misadventures, they overcome the period’s prejudices.
So first up is its liberal use of ‘that’ word. Even back in 1884, racial epithets like this raised eyebrows. Condoning racism is always a worry (even if that racism is already at large). And others see it as a teaching tool, providing context for confronting prejudices.
It’s not my place to say if students need this imposed on them. Some won’t appreciate it, and for good reason. But I will say read Toni Morrison’s eloquent defense of Twain in her introduction to the 1996 edition. Not only does it offer reasoned arguments, but it’s another excuse to read Morrison.
This futuristic encyclopedic novel with sprawling narratives has become the ultimate challenge.
In it, America, Canada, and Mexico are the ‘Organization of North American Nations.’ The action then bounces around from Alcoholics Anonymous to a tennis academy. There’s also a film called ‘Infinite Jest’ everyone loves, making viewers docile forever.
Well, books usually deviate from the movie.
Like with ‘Finnegans Wake,’ people can’t decide whether it’s genius or hot air. Polarizing readers, it loses many in its extensive endnotes and footnotes. But, like Joyce again, discussions wouldn’t still surround Wallace today if he had no merit. Nobody picks up a thousand-page tome if there’s nothing to it, right?
That said, newcomers should start with his essay collection ‘Consider the Lobster.’ Better to get a taster first.
Capote stated, ‘that’s not writing; that’s typing.’ So is this another round of ‘genius or ramblings?’
Many regard Kerouac as writing one of the ‘great American novels.’ Others contest this. Only one thing’s for sure, its attitudes toward women and minorities have dated.
But it remains an exercise of energy and passion.
In it, Sal Paradise (Kerouac) travels around post-war America. He meets friends and takes road trips, exploring life with wild abandon. Kerouac also based many of the characters on other iconic members of the ‘Beat Generation.’
Live, love, and burn out.
A misconception of Jazz music is its freedom. Hearing any skilled musician improvise shows the effort needed to reach that level. A single misplaced note, and it falls apart.
If the film Whiplash taught us anything, it’s that practice makes perfect (and to run fast from JK Simmons).
This stream-of-consciousness was what Kerouac replicated in his prose. Whether he got there or not is your call, but he still put in the hours. Leading up to his three weeks non-stop marathon, he prepared with practice runs.
Still, always print the legend.
E.L. James – Fifty Shades of Grey (2011)
This entry may seem dated, given that everyone was discussing it, then silence. But, during the mid-tens, everyone had something to say on the pulp erotica for a brief moment.
Its story follows college student Anastasia Steele’s relationship with wealthy entrepreneur Christian Grey. A dominant-submissive dynamic occurs as Grey takes charge in and out of the bedroom.
Many debated its ideas of consent and whether its portrayal of BDSM was realistic. Psychologists even stepped in to offer their outlook. And all this from what began as horny Twilight fan-fiction online.
Either way, what James achieved is nothing to mock. She marketed it herself and set the template for self-publishers.
So, the debate shouldn’t be its content alone but also its publication.
JD Salinger – Catcher in the Rye (1951)
I mean, how could we not? It’s a rite of passage for both high-schooler debates and the school boards banning it.
The story involves seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield hanging out in post-war New York. It’s an introspective two days for a depressed, self-destructive adolescent facing the world.
That’s it narrative-wise.
Now comes the question of how you feel about the protagonist.
Right off the bat, the ‘backlash’ has always existed. It’s always been polarizing. Readers often critique Caulfield’s voice, which is internal for the most part. And many often overlook its humor.
At this point, I’ll say it’s a book that either clicks or doesn’t. It’s more a question of who you are and where you are in life when reading it. Nobody has the ‘right answer’ to this, as it’s a very personal reading experience.
And that’s why it’s unfilmable, even if ‘Igby Goes Down’ got close. And even if it’s phonies acting.