Saturday, July 14, 2012

That Boy with the Red Hat, do You Love Him or Hate Him?

Credits: No idea. It was on google images, I can't draw nearly that well.
This is Holden.
He was born somewhere between 1945 and 1951 (depending on who you ask) at the age of sixteen.
Since then, over a dozen bands and artists have made allusions to him in songs, including Guns N' Roses, Green Day, Billy Joel, and even the Jonas Brothers.
Holden has quite the reputation as a troublemaker. He's been held responsible for John Lennon's assassination, a failed attempt on Ronald Reagen's life, and a couple hundred thousand fights between teenagers and their parents.
He's supposed to be this great icon of young rebellion.
But before all this, there was one book written about him.
You recognize this book, don't you? At least, the title sounds faintly familiar. I've heard about it for years-the title, I mean. I think that's how it works for most twentieth century classics. Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, whatever those are. Your intelligent friend brings it up and you can say, "Yes, I've heard of it."
I'd heard plenty of references to it myself. Then I joined goodreads and began seeing it on lists.
Best Books Ever
Books Everyone Should Read at Least Once
Disappointing Books
Best Young Adult Books
Everyone's Read it But Me
Read it Least
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die
Best Banned and/or Censored Books (or worst to have banned)
The Worst Books of All Time
I'm Glad Somebody Made Me Read This
Books I Regret Reading
Popular Books that Annoy You
Books that Blew Me Away and I Still Think About (of all types)
Read These in School...Would Have Preferred a Root Canal
That's most of page one. There are eighteen pages of lists. I had to read it, just to see what it was about. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Everybody either loves it or hates it. I wanted to know what the big deal was, especially since it's supposed to be one of the first books about teenage rebellion. You could even go as far to say it was one of the first books about teenagers.
Sure, there were thousands of books written before with characters in their teens, like Little Women. But the term "teenager" wasn't even coined until after WWII, so you can't say that book's about teenage girls. I mean, the title kind of says it all. And there's nothing in the book that makes it specifically for teenage girls. I read it when I was nine, but plenty of adults read it as well.
I've heard that young adult literaure didn't even exist until 1967, when S. E. Hinton published The Outsiders.
But Holden Caulfield came before her.
I read it, and I was kind of disappointed. Not because the book failed, but because it didn't excite me in either way. I'd expected it to either become a personal icon for me or something I'd consider burning and rant about to friends and strangers alike.
After finishing it, I decided the reason it had been called iconic for decades was that it was the first book to go there. The book's notorious for it's profanity. I think I found one page where it didn't swear once. According to the internet, it swears somewhere between 231 and 244 times.
I find that kind of funny. I imagine some teacher or concerned parent confiscating the book, and then marking it up themselves with a red pen, keeping a little tally sheet on the side. If you take a book written on white paper in black ink, go over it with a red pen, and then step back to see what you've done, all you'll see are red marks.
I'm not going to defend it for that. The way I saw it, that was the first book about a guy who walks around New York, smokes, gets drunk, attempts to flirt with women twice his age, goes back to his hotel room, and decides everybody there except him is a pervert.
Now all books have to be gritty. So it's not special anymore, I decided.
But it's also one of those books that stays in your head. I couldn't help but admit that Holden was a wonderfully complex character. Lots of books, you read them and you can't get attached to the main character because nothing goes on their head. I don't mean that they're stupid, but you just can't see their thoughts, only what they do.
Most of the book is Holden thinkning. There's the action of him talking and flirting and loosing the occassional fight. But mostly he thinks about ducks and rainbows in oil puddles and how he doesn't like anything except his sister Pheobe.

So maybe he is special after all.
If this book has a revolutionary quality aside from simply being the first to dare, it's in Holden's thoughts. His parents never appear in the story and he doesn't think about them as much as he does other things. He just mentions that they're rich. He does run away from boarding school, after he's been kicked out for failing too many classes and there are three days left until Christmas break. If Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. carried around copies the day they tried to kill somebody, that's their problem.
Can it be held accountable for personal familiy rebellion? I'd say yes. I brought the book down from my bookshelf upstairs so I could look at parts while I wrote about it. My mom saw me on the stairs, swinging the book back and forth by one corner.
"Are you getting sucked in by the book now?"
"Why would you think that?"
"You're holding it."
And then there's my little brother, who looked over my shoulder while I inserted the picture of The Catcher in the Rye.
"Are you blogging about that swearing book?"
I think if you make something out to be a big deal, it'll be a big deal.
Generations of teenagers have loved and hated Holden Caulfield. It's been required reading in high schools and it's been banned in high schools.
I could tell you more. I could preach about Holden's family and urge to protect childhood innocence and his iconic red hunting hat. But you probably don't care.
And if you do care, you'd be better off reading it yourself.

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