Our latest Smarty Pants entry comes from Susan T, who enjoys any cocktail that masks the taste of alcohol. (But Susan, have you tried Everclear?) She also wants you to know that she loves Hermione but kinda thinks that Ron belongs with Luna. Our book report for Catcher, Caught inspired her to write down some thoughts she's had jangling around in her head since she was sixteen.
Bite me, Holden Caulfield!
Whew, I've wanted to say that for seventeen years. Seriously the acclaim Catcher in the Rye gets bugs the hell out of me. I know it was hugely influential for a lot of people, and revolutionary for its time, but I am sick of hearing about how it is "the" (as in the ultimate and only one) voice of teenagedom. I have to believe there are plenty of people that, like me, read it and did not feel like it was speaking for them.
I have read Catcher in the Rye twice, both times as a teenager. The first time, I found it in the school library, while I was browsing the shelves during lunch period. I did not do things such as socialize with other people during lunch, so I spent lots of time in the library, on the pretense of doing homework, but really doing anything but. So I found the book, and recognized the famous title, and saw that it was relatively short, so I spent the next couple of day's lunch periods reading it. My impression on first reading was that it was okay. It didn't change my life. The main character was a little deluded, but the descriptions of wandering through New York (a place I had never been, still haven't) had been vivid, and made for an interesting diversion. That was all the impression it made on me.
So, when a year later, it was assigned to my English class as the book of the month, my only thought was "Score! Already read that one!"
Then the teacher (I think it might have been a substitute), on handing it out, said something that changed my perspective on it completely. It was something along the lines of "Catcher in the Rye is a book that all teenagers regardless of race, gender, or social class can relate to. Because Holden Caulfield's thoughts are every teenager's thoughts, and his struggles are every teenager's struggles."
"Really?" I thought. I didn't remember that. So I reread it, and I came to this conclusion: Holden is a whiney, self absorbed, brat. His struggles are that he is obsessed with getting laid, but also scared of girls. And his rich parents sent him to a bunch of fancy shamncy boarding schools that he hates, and continues to get kicked out of, for being a terrible student (okay I could relate to the terrible student part). And he thinks the world is full of phonies, and no one understands him.
These are the thoughts and struggles, that were supposed to be my thoughts and struggles? Seriously? Poor little rich boy has it so tough? Okay yes I do remember that his brother had died, and that is pointed to as the cause of his angst. I would never say that having a sibling or any close relative die is not a big deal. It is a huge deal! I just never bought it as his secret origin. It felt tacked on, like he needed to have some trauma to point to, so we couldn't dismiss his behavior as ridiculous, naval gazing.
In other words, I didn't get it. This book did not speak to or for me. His troubles were not my troubles. Granted, my adolescence was not the typical adolescence. God, I hope it wasn't! By the time I was reading about Holden, my mother had been dead for five years, and my father, who was my sole guardian, was in the grips of an undiagnosed, and untreated mental illness. He focused all that unfiltered crazy on me, through a litany of violence, neglect, inappropriate clinginess, and all manner of mental fuckery. So I really didn't see the whole distant parents issue as such a problem.
Here's the thing. I loved reading back then, (still do) and I was not exclusively reading things that directly reflected my own experience. In fact, I don't remember reading anything that directly reflected my experience. Yet I had no problem relating to the main characters of most of the books I was reading. I was not a redheaded orphan, adopted by an elderly Canadian brother and sister, like Anne Shirley. I still longed with her for her puffed sleeve dress, and fumed at being called carrots. I was not a bubbly teenage girl in late nineteenth century Minnesota. I lived for Betsy Ray's adventures from Maude Hart Lovelace's Deep Valley series. How could she not win the essay contest? Were the judges crazy? (I would love to see FYA review the high school books from that series. Joe Willard was made of swoon.) I was definitely not a thirty-something Englishman who survived the destruction of Earth by a series of ridiculous events. Yet I devoured every word written about Arthur Dent. I was not Miss Celie, from The Color Purple either, but I loved her story, I felt her pain.
I can still pick up each of those books, and jump into the shoes of the main character, even though my life is far removed from what it was when I first read it.
What I'm suggesting is that, maybe Catcher in the Rye is not as universal as that teacher suggested. Maybe it is not the quintessential tome on adolescence. That's all I'm saying, yet I have never heard anyone else say that. Am I crazy? Am I the only one who was not fundamentally changed by reading it? And is that such a bad thing? Remember those bastions of sanity, that also happen to be big fans of the book, Mark David Chapman, and John Hinkley? Could be I'm glad Holden is not my soulmate. Although I do have to admit part of me is proud of my anti-establishment stance on this book. So maybe we have a little more in common than I thought. Pretentious contrariness, for the win!
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