armchair cultural observation since 1995

Meeting Holden

I was first introduced to Holden Caulfield my junior year of high school. Like most teenagers, I dreaded having to read books and write papers. I had a particularly difficult time with my English teacher, who spent the majority of the class period pandering to the best and the brightest in the front of the room. These, of course, were the ones who pined for her attention as she seized every opportunity to patronize me and the other slackers, stoners and wannabe anarchists sleeping in the back of the room.

When my teacher handed out the topic list for our novel writing assignment, I scanned through the list looking for names of authors that I knew. Of course, I had heard of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, so those were my first choices. The problem was that those were also the only authors that the others students knew as well, so by the time the teacher made her way to the back of the classroom, I was forced to randomly pick a topic, which ended up being about some book I had never heard of called Catcher in the Rye. For the report, I was assigned to write about the main character Holden Caulfield, and the many ways that he loses his innocence in the story.

As the time came to go to the library at school to research our topics, my frustrations continued as I found researching Salinger and his novel to be very challenging. It didn’t help that several of my classmates bragged about how much information they found on Walt Whitman or John Steinbeck. So while most of the students merely glanced at the book that they were writing about, I was forced to get most of my information from reading the book itself.

As I began to flip the worn pages of the novel, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the author used a lot of foul language. After discovering this fact, I made a vain attempt to convince my mom that the book’s language was too vulgar for me to continue the report. Eventually, I was able to coax my mom into asking my teacher if I could change my topic, but my teacher would not budge.

Reluctantly, I continued reading the novel. As I followed the exploits of Holden Caulfield, I discovered an apathetic and sarcastic character to which I could relate. As I read about Holden’s struggles with isolation and loneliness and failure, I was able to gain perspective on my own.

Looking back to 15 years ago, I cannot honestly tell you anything that I wrote in that paper, or even what I received for a grade. I wish I could say that after reading the book, I immediately became the book lover and collector that I am today, but I was still young, still trying to figure out my place in the world.

I didn’t change overnight, but by my senior year, with the help of a new teacher, I started to appreciate literature. I started to read and write poetry, I helped edit my school’s literary magazine, and along with a few friends started our very own literary circle, dubbing ourselves The Meats in reference to The Beat Poets whose words we devoured and counter-culture style we emulated.

In college, I surrounded myself with classic literature; and, thanks to a local used bookstore, began to build a library of my own. I would go on to earn a degree in English literature, and eventually become an English teacher.  Holden Caulfield still sits in the back of my classroom trying to find his way. I hope that he finds it.

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