published Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Cook: A teenager walks into a bar and other good stories

A teenager walks into a New York City bar. He looks as bad as bad can be. Hasn’t slept or eaten in days and, when he takes off this outlandish red hunting hat, you can tell he’s already going gray in places. And he’s not even 18 yet.

He smokes like a stack, lighting up new cigarettes before the old ones burn out. He hassles every waitress in the joint to sell him a drink. He’s a wreck, but in an immensely likable and sympathetic way.

You recognize him?

Of course you do.

It’s Holden Caulfield.

The antihero of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” the deeply compassionate and deeply troubled Caulfield has come to represent the teenage journey for millions of American readers.

And they usually meet him in the same place.

Not a bar.

In a high school English class.

This week marks the start of another school year in Hamilton County. Lying in wait within English classes are books and characters that have the power to crawl under our skin, lodge in our hearts and trouble our minds like good literature can.

The goal of life is to learn how to live, and few places hold as many guides for the journey as high school literature.

Don’t you agree? Is there one book out there that you encountered in high school English class that made you a different person?

Here are my top five, the ones that have stayed with me through thick and thin. Feel free to add yours at the end.

And no, Huck Finn ain’t on the list.

1. Holden.

The kid cusses like a sailor and tries to act tough like one, too. But just beyond his superficial act beats a troubled heart and a mind about to collapse. Caulfield is lonely and broken in all the worst places, yet he still tries again and again to hold a crumbling world together, hoping to catch people before they fall off the cliff.

Holden’s asking the same question so many teenagers are asking about today’s society: Where are all the adults?

And why the hell does everyone have to be so phony?

2. “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Love conquers all, St. Paul said. Dickens believed it, too. A revolutionary epic set in the best and worst of times, the “Tale” contains everything needed for a drama: blood in the streets, the saving grace of love and some wicked wineshop owners, seeking justice against the original 1 percent.

3. “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Too many parts to name: busting up chifforobes, rabid dogs in the streets, the Radley tree and the small-town landscape. But the best of this book resides in the characters: the plumb-line straightness of Atticus, the innocence of Tom, the saintly Boo and the emerging Scout.

4. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Zora Neale Hurston writes sentences as delicious as any I’ve ever read. They drape like Spanish moss — fragrant like flower gardens — over the rich plot. Janie Crawford, the hero, learns about self-love, independence and community.

Couldn’t we all.

5. Cormac McCarthy (with regrets to “Lord of the Flies,” Hemingway, Morrison, O’Connor and Faulkner).

It’s like he speaks a second language, where words and sentences combine to form some of the most haunting, ferocious and beautiful stories I’ve ever known. “All the Pretty Horses” — a cowboy tale about boys becoming men — is one I read each year or so.

I wish Holden would, too.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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AndrewLohr said...

The Bible? If it ain't serious business, why is it banned or heavily restricted? If it is serious, hadn't students better face up to it and to God behind it? (Try the Book of Ruth for starters: 4 pages, work and marriage as a welfare program...)

August 14, 2012 at 12:24 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

I knew a Tale of Two Cities would be on this list even before I scrolled down the page.

Check out most any school reading list these days. It's almost to the point where if the the main character(s) isn't an ethnic or religious minority who's been done wrong-and in some cases severely persecuted-it won't be required reading.

August 14, 2012 at 12:41 a.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

The Bible? It's a poorly written fictional account of a mythological and minor local god. To read it as anything other than metaphor is ignorance. It's not great literature.

The stories are based on other myths that predate those times, from creation to a messiah, with archaic social rules for those primitive people.

But do read it on your own time. It's full of contradictions, inaccuracies, irrelevant rules, murder, rape, incest, and magical beliefs with no basis in reality and science.

If more people actually read the Bible, instead of letting popes, preachers, and political pundits tell them about it they might discover what a sham it is as a book of literal historical "facts."

Included it it school as literature? Why? I want my kids to learn from good books, not myths presented as dogmatic historical facts, whose goal is indoctrination for the sake of mind control and making money for faith healers, religious corporations, and televangelists.

August 14, 2012 at 8:28 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

Excellent comments on the Bible, dd. I was raised a Christian and have read it through the eyes and the heart of a devoted Christian and then later through the eyes of a person not afraid to ask serious questions about the nature of faith and religion. Once you read it truly objectively and with eyes wide open, it becomes clear how contrived and primitive in concept it really is. And once you see it for what it is, there is no going back to the blind faith of our childish beliefs.

August 14, 2012 at 2:05 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

David Cook, your list of books is very good but I don't know how you cannot include Huck Finn. I would also have to include Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and any of Herman Hesse's books, particuarly "Siddhartha." Now that I'm thinking about it, I could rattle off several more. Actually, a list of five is just too, too small, I think.

August 14, 2012 at 2:22 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Rickaroo do you mock the koran the same way you mock the Bible?

I'm anxious to know what the reading selections are at GPS this year and over the summer, Cook can let us know. For $18,000 or more, are the mountain girls and eastside ladies (east county, that is) getting literature or are they getting the "blame the male WASPs for everything" that's become the norm on modern reading lists.

August 14, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Yes, LB the Koran is every bit as nonsensical as the Bible. It is monotheistic religion in general that I find silly and repulsive. The idea of a god (male, no less - whatever happened to Mrs. God, or God our heavenly Mother?) who metes out eternal punishment or eternal reward based entirely on whether or not someone obediently believes and worships him is pure BS and something fit only for brainwashed children or morons to believe in.

August 14, 2012 at 3 p.m.
davidcook said...

Rickaroo - I kept it at five, but if I had room for 10, most of your suggestions would be there. Along with The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies. Would love to read more of your suggestions.... And LaughingBoy, while I'm sure I could find out the GPS reading list (it's probably online, which means you could too), you need to know something: I dont teach there.

August 14, 2012 at 3:05 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

The difference is for many mocking the Bible is hip and might get you a good tongue lashing at the most, or maybe an appearance on Bill Maher's show. Mocking the koran, well you know the consequences. The religion of peace is at it again in India, threatening to throw acid in the face of Indian woman who don't cover up sufficiently. Cell phone users get more mercy, just a bullet to the head.

August 14, 2012 at 3:07 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Cook did you take my advice on sign on at Brainerd High?

August 14, 2012 at 3:27 p.m.
daytonsdarwin said...

For the reading list:

The True Believers — Eric Hoffer

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? — George Carlin

Walden, Civil Disobedience — Henry David Thoreau

The Demon-Haunted World — Carl Sagan

The Monkey Wrench Gang — Edward Abbey

Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes — Ray Bradbury

Johnny Got His Gun — Dalton Trumbo

August 14, 2012 at 4:19 p.m.


Holy Scripture, Authorized King James Version:

"The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."

Jude 1:17 "But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken

before of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; How that they

told you there should be mockers in the last time,

who should walk after their own ungodly lusts."

"...ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness,

and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."


August 15, 2012 at 1:49 a.m.
bigguy said...

The Grapes of Wrath might be a good review for the days ahead.

August 15, 2012 at 7:52 a.m.
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