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".