Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Holden Caulfield and Banning Books

My Dear Reader,

As I mentioned previously, one of the books I read for my Ten Classics in 2013 challenge was Catcher in the Rye. Since it's one of the most banned books of all time, and since I read it right after reading Fahrenheit 451, I've been thinking a lot about censorship and age-appropriate material.

Really, I can see both sides of this issue.

On one side, you have the obvious truth that children react badly when exposed to things too young. Sometimes, it can be really traumatizing. When I was seven, one of my friend's parents let us watch Chucky, and let me tell you, I had nightmares for years. To this day, coming across a screenshot gives me shivers.

There's also the truth that children are constantly mimicking the behavior of whoever or whatever happens to be around them. That's the only thing that explains the explosion of over-dramatic, ineffective attempts at violence that exploded in my neighborhood after Power Rangers became popular.

So with those concerns in mind, a book like Catcher in the Rye can be pretty threatening. Holden Caulfield, the "protagonist," has little regard for rules. Though underage, he drinks and smokes. He is sent to private school after private school because he doesn't take his academic responsibilities seriously. Actually, he doesn't take any responsibilities seriously. And when he knows that he is going to get kicked out of yet another school, he skips town rather than deal with any negative consequences of his own failure. Really, Holden isn't much of a role model. And since he spends most of the book doing the exact things that parents tend to forbid their kids from doing, along with the brief instances of foul language and other controversial items, I can see why a lot of parents don't like it.

But, on the other hand, there is a reason why Catcher in the Rye is a classic.

This reason is not immediately apparent. For the first three quarters of the book, I was both bored and annoyed at Holden, because Holden is a loser. He sucks at pretty much everything, and to make it worse, he also complains about everything. I'm not even sure that he tries. Halfway through the book, I almost stopped reading because I was sick of waiting for something to happen. Spoiler alert: nothing does, really. This book is basically a few days in the odd life of a high school dropout.

But I'm really glad that I stuck with it, because in the last quarter of the book, things start to make sense. You start to see that Holden is not meant to be some kind of hero, as much as he wants to be. The story of Holden is a story of a broken kid, trapped between childhood and adulthood, who does not know how to find his place in the world. Of course I wanted to give up on Holden. Holden has given up on himself long before the novel began. Holden's life is one of profound disappointment in both himself and those around him.

And, you know, there is probably more than one teenager who can relate to that.

Catcher in the Rye is a classic because, like many classics, it expertly captures a piece of truth that resonates. Granted, that truth is not always pretty, but it's real. And sometimes I think that this is the whole reason that we read books. We read in order to get out of our own heads and see if we can find a part of ourselves in someone else's. And as much as I want to roll my eyes at Holden Caulfield, I have to admit that he is very real. While I've never done pretty much anything he does in the book, I can relate to him on a pretty profound level. At some point or another, it's possible that we are Holden Caulfield.

Yes, Holden does some bad things. Leaving school and holing up in some skeevy hotel in the city in order to annoy everyone around him is probably not the best idea. But Holden's bad choices lead him to bad consequences. No one can read this book and come away with the idea that smoking, drinking, and complaining paves the road to happiness.

And just as Holden is confused as to whether he is a child or an adult, it's hard to tell when a kid is adult enough to handle the kind of truth that is presented in Catcher in the Rye. There is a real danger in letting your kid grow up too fast or too slowly. On one extreme, you've got eight-year-old kings, and on the other, you've got thirty-five-year-old basement dwellers. Most parents are shooting for the center of that spectrum.

How do you get to the center? I have no idea.

But realistically speaking, while Catcher in the Rye does have some undesirable content, it's a whole lot cleaner than a lot of the literature out there, which will be required reading in college. Even in one of the most conservative schools in the country, like the one I attended. When kids finish high school, they are expected to magically become adults. Maybe tagging along on Holden's journey will help them get there.

Either way, Catcher in the Rye is an excellent book. The best way to figure out if it's appropriate is to read it for yourself and make your own conclusions. Just make sure you make it all the way to the end.

Regards, best wishes, and I'm not telling you how to raise your kids,

-Cecily Jane


just a little bit mo said...

I enjoyed this post. When you posted on facebook about reading "Catcher in the Rye" I wondered whether or not you'd like it, knowing that there's not much of a plot. Your post really echoes my own thoughts on the book, and my own feelings toward Holden. Thanks for putting it into words - I feel a camaraderie with many J.D. Salinger characters, but it's always been hard for me to say exactly why. I'm glad you finished the book.

Kyle Clawson said...

Yeah, I wasn't sure how I felt about it either. I read it in high school, and quite frankly, hated it. Especially the fact that nothing happens. Then again, I've been conditioned to follow a plot line. There is something profound in Holden. He's no different than any of us. Most of his life really isn't that interesting, just like telling my story (for the most part) wouldn't be that interesting. In fact, most of it would be pretty boring. It would read like "and then he did homework, and then he ate food, and then . . ." but it does highlight that moment of enlightenment we all come to, when we want to protect innocence, even when we ourselves can't seem to find it. Anyway. That's my ramble.

Cecily Jane said...

Since I read this by myself and not with a class and a teacher, I was really confused and almost gave up. I really appreciate both of your comments because they let me know that I wasn't the only one frustrated with the writing style. Thanks for your input.