Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Holden Caufield, Revisited

For anyone looking to relive their high school or college days, I recommend that they join a book group, if they haven't done so already. It's a surefire cure for nostalgia. Not because I hate book groups--I don't. What I hate, and what I hated in my more academic life, was assigned reading. Yet once a month, I put myself through this required reading stuff. The pressure doesn't come from my group. I live in Santa Cruz, California after all, where any kind of requirement would feel too heavy. But the fact remains that I don't exactly feel right about showing up on a Tuesday night without having finished the book. Which has resulted in a lot of last day swatting up of the text over the years. I haven't quite gotten to the 'all nighter' phase ever. But my back end loading of the book selection makes me quite sure that I am not ready even now to go back to college for enrichment, career advancement, or anything else.

This month's selection is Catcher in the Rye, the famous J.D. Salinger work. I think all of us who are meeting tonight read this book 'back in the day', but in a way, I'm surprised by that, because I did not read this as required high school reading. It seems to be now, though. From my (very) slightly insider point of view as a bookseller, I know that the publisher, Hachette, formerly Warner, banks heavily on some kind of course book adoption of Salinger's books. Frankly, I can't think why. I mean, that I can't understand this book being taught in high schools. Not because it isn't brilliant. It is. But it is so antithetical to the high school experience, so in protest of it really, that I doubt very much that a high school classroom is the proper forum for this work. I don't doubt that teenagers can get quite a bit from it. I just think that discovering it on their own would make it much more resonant than it will be force fed to them.

As for the rereading--one thing that stands out to me is what a New York, specifically Manhattan, book this is. I realized that the first time I read this I had never been to Manhattan, and had no real conception of it, so I glossed over many of the details. I don't know that the details are so important to the message of it, but it stands out all over the place, once it is part of your mental geography.

I had expected that Caufield would appear a lot more strident to me now than he did back then. But he remains a pretty sympathetic, if somewhat deranged narrator. Many of the 'types' he runs across have more resonance to me now than they did on initial reading. I suspect that I didn't have quite enough experience of the human pool to see the accuracy of Salinger's skewering. I don't think most of Holden's expose of phoniness can really be refuted. And yet, he himself refutes total condemnation of anyone many a time.

I'm planning to report back here on what the book group thought of this reread.

One question I have, which of course must remain unanswered. What would have happened to Holden Caulfield? I wish Salinger would write a novel about the grown up Holden. And I would hope that he would not take the too easy route of making Caufield "a phony".


  1. Man I love that novel. One thing everyone talks about how is how gloomy and messed up HC is but no one mentions how funny he is. There are big five laughs in the first twenty pages or so: losing the equipment on the subway, hating the big game and that incredible scene with his teacher trying to throw Esquire magazine (or whatever it is) onto the bed.

    Also if a student of mine had ever written as beautiful a thing as Holden's piece about his brother's baseball glove, I would have no hesitation giving them an A for the entire year.

    Ever noticed that all 4 siblings are writers BTW?

  2. I thought that you would either love it or hate it, but am glad to know you love it.

    I agree on the humor part, and I don't actually think he's that screwed up.

    It's late, and we've all had too much wine, as per usual, but a couple of things came up about it. One person pointed out that the book itself takes on a a kind of breakneck speed, which mirrors Holden's own frantic race. I don't know if I would have agreed, except I think that both times I've read this, I have speeded through it. I don't know why I did the first time, but I wonder if the book itself brings it out in people.

    The other thing that was interesting is that we realized that it was a sort of Buddhist novel. Okay, I said it, but my friend who actually is a Buddhist didn't say it only because she thought someone, probably me, would roll their eyes at that. But it is. This is not a novel about an erratic youth who refuses to see the light. It's about someone who, probably due to his brother's death, has prematurely seen that there is no light.

    I didn't pick up on them all being writers, because I didn't remember that Allie was.

    I hope you check back here, Adrian, because I think you will be happy to learn that I persuaded everyone to read Kidnapped for our next meeting.

  3. Allie wrote all the poems on his baseball mitt remember?

  4. my favourite bits of kidnapped.

    "am I no a bonnie fighter, Davie?"

    "I have seen wicked men and fools, very many of both and they both get paid in the end, but the fools first."

  5. I think it was as I was walking to work this morning that I realized about the baseball glove. I mean, you had as much as given me a clue. What can I say? I am slow on the uptake, and not just here.

    When I read the bit where he tore up that essay, my heart froze, just as if I would actually have a chance to read it.

    The thing I love about my book group is that just when I have some lowered expectation abou the group dynamic and collective decision-making process, they surprise me. I've intimated that I 'persuaded' them, but actually, I just put the book on the table and they said, 'let's read that.' I think there is a strong group intuition when the right thing comes along that I don't acknowledge as much as I should.

    Yes, those are good lines from RLS. I sure do hope they weren't (or should that be werrint?) the only reasons to read it.

  6. it's on the TBR pile along with a few other literary offerings, never having even read it the once.....KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, ON THE ROAD, CLOCKWORK ORANGE,

    give me a year and I'll be better qualified to chip in on a few of your other blogs!