Oh, Holden. Life Is Still So Hard for You
There's a story in the New York Times today repeating the tired notion that Holden Caulfiled is 'losing his grip on the kids." (And that therefore Catcher in the Rye is somehow less good.)The article implies that there was some recent moment in which Holden seemed fresh and new. I'm sure there was such a time, but it's been a while. I am what teenagers would call "old," and yet when I was a teenager, Holden did not seem to be my historical peer. His slang was different, for one thing. Also, he had phone numbers of prostitutes, which was apparently common in the late 1940s but seemed rather exotic to my teenage self. It is not news that books published 59 years ago read differently than books being published now.The thrust of the NYT story is that kids don't like Holden, that they find him whiny and immature and want him to get a life and take his prozac and engage in the world. This is not news either. In fact, I'd wager that readers have always felt the need to (at least publicly) disavow all association with Holden Caulfield, in precisely the same way that Holden himself refuses to acknowledge the truth of his situation to any of his peers.To sympathize publicly with Holden is to acknowledge that you feel unacknowledged, that you have a difficult time escaping the prison of yourself, that you are unsure of how to be a person, that you are lonely and dishonest and feel reviled. Adults can do this in a way that teenagers cannot.Also, look: Teenagers hate lots of really good books. So what? English classes are not in the business of providing enjoyable reading experiences. English classes are in the business of A. teaching children how to read critically and thoughtfully, and B. teaching them how to be people. Teenagers have always hated the books they read in school. I hated GATSBY! I did! I wrote a paper (no, I won't show it to you) in which I argued that Gatsby was just a dumb book about rich Yankees and their uninteresting rich Yankee problems, and that all that stuff about the billboard and the eyes was a bunch of English-teacher hooey.I was wrong, of course. I was wrong in precisely the same way that students who dislike Catcher are wrong. And I got an D on that paper, which was the appropriate grade, even though of course I was furious at the time. I'd read the book! I'd shared my feelings! What else could a teacher want?!I know that I am, like, annoyingly old-fashioned about this, but it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that we have lately empowered students to think that their reading of a book is inherently good and/or interesting.Too often, we teach kids that all readings are created equal and that there are no bad ideas and etc. But kids are not in school so that they can tell us what they think about Holden Caulfield. They're in school to learn what to think about. And whether or not you like Holden is not, imho, the most important or interesting thing you might be thinking about when reading Catcher.It's not Holden's fault if people read him poorly.UPDATE: I'm not saying that there's only one good reading of a book; I'm saying that not all readings are equally good. More in comments. Also in comments, Scott points out that according to this link, Catcher is the fifth most popular book on college facebook profiles (behind Harry Potter, The Bible, Angels and Demons, and To Kill a Mockingbird). Since the NYT report was based totally on anecdote and that site contains actual, you know, reporting--I think I'll rest easy that Holden is still speaking to "the kids."