MAHB: Books

Some­one should’ve just slapped Holden Caulfield.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - mahb / books by emily ding

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.

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