Someone should’ve just slapped Holden Caulfield.
i’ll admit it now: I didn’t read Catcher in the Rye until the ripe old age of 27. Most would have read it when they were closer to the age of the book’s protagonist—or antagonist, should we say—holden Caulfield: a 17-year-old discontent who’s never quite as apathetic as he makes himself out to be. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably have an impression of it, having read all the secondary articles debating its themes. I thought Holden was a tough guy, uncompromising in an informed, principled manner. But when I finally read it, he came across as more a hapless teenager than anything, and his rebellion seemed more nervous than deliberate.
This was my emotional progression on the book: I started out feeling that Holden was endearing in spite of himself, who had good intentions, but seemed to be missing the bigger picture. Maybe, it had to do with the fact that he reminded me of a younger cousin, who came close to being expelled from school for various misdemeanours, but whom I like to believe is simply misunderstood. Soon, though, I began to find Holden a little annoying. It might have to do with being in his head for so long, and how he just doesn’t help himself, even when well-meaning adults offer a way out. Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that I’ve already bypassed that stage of my life, or that I never lived it that way at all.
You might point out that it’s a “young adult” book, so I’m past the point of being able to relate. Or maybe, it’s just that when you’re older, you feel less like a book or a song can change your life. Certainly, if you listen to some of the voicemails left by readers on Call Me Ishmael (callmeishmael. com) on “a book you loved and a story you lived”, most talk about a time when they were coming of age—one of the more formative phases of our lives. Whatever it is, it’s undeniable that when you read a book makes it a different experience. When I re-read books years later, I find I’d highlighted passages, often without accompanying notes, and can’t fathom why they’d spoken to me.
Which brings me to something else: literature as an emotional pursuit rather than a purely intellectual one. There is a growing space on the Internet dedicated to personal stories on how a book has affected a reader. It’s inevitable that we project our own worldviews and values onto anything we read, but what happens when that alters the author’s intended message? How open is a novel to interpretation? Is it like a song, from which the listener is encouraged to take what he will? It’s a tough question, but I’m leaning towards yes. And perhaps, if you don’t get it “right” the first time, re-reading a book at different stages of your life, filtered through different experiences lived, will bring you closer to it.