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How Holden Got His Name Pt. I

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Friday, February 18, 2011

How Holden Got His Name Pt. I

Not much mystery here.  He's named after Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

A teacher friend of mine in Connecticut recently assigned her high school class Catcher in the Rye.

"A friend of mine in California just had a baby," she told them, "and he named his son Holden after this book."

"Why the hell would you do that to kid?" someone shouted back.


Catcher in the Rye is more than just my favorite book, which in itself is pretty monumental.  Not necessarily to you--what the hell do you care what my favorite book is?--but when you consider how many books a person reads in a life, or at least a nerdy English dork such as I.  Thousands?  Tens of thousands?  I don't know.  But a lot.  I've read some fantastic books.  Most I consider shit.  After all, everyone is a critic (just see some of the comments on this blog).  Still, a great many have moved me.  Razor's Edge.  Zen and the Art.  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Crime and Punishment.  Wuthering Heights.  Just read two amazing memoirs, Lit and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, two of the best I've ever read, in fact.  If I am 40, and I've been reading steadily since I was a kid, that's a shit-ton of books from which to choose.  Kerouac and Chandler, Vonnegut and Keene, Bukowski. Point is, with all those books, it should probably be harder than it is for me to name the single book I consider my favorite.

Music is different.  You have so many moods.  Feeling somber, I might put on Springsteen's Nebraska.  Feeling a little more somber, I might put on Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Feeling somber and nostalgic, it's Springsteen's Born to Run.  OK.  So maybe it isn't that different for me.  I am creature of habit; I like routine.  Repetition brings me comfort.  I am an American Boy.  I guess that is what it would have to be, because I listen to Springsteen, and I read Catcher in the Rye; I wear broken hearts, blue jeans and white T-shirts, a product of "american male despair" (a topic we'll save for a later post).

If you're reading this, I'm assuming you read, and if you haven't read Catcher in the Rye, you are at least familiar with the book, the premise, the character, etc., so I see no need to rehash or surmise.  Most people like the book.  A lot of people really hate the book.  Women, in particular, seem to dislike it (it is the quintessential "boy book").  Critics complain Holden does nothing but whine throughout (I once read an op-ed by George Will in the Times for the fiftieth anniversary of its pressing, talking about how much he hated the book because it had taught a generation of kids to do nothing but complain.  Which I found funny.  Since Salinger's book is an indictment of douchebags like George Will).  Even fans, though, seem to read the book differently at different stages of their life.  I'll hear, "Oh, yeah, I read it when I was 16.  And then when I was 40.  And of course it was so different."  Not to me.  I read that book for the first time at 18, and at least once a year ever since.  I thought Holden was right the first time.  And I think he is right now.  The world is filled with goddamn phonies.

Salinger's critical eye shines through via Holden's barbed observations.  Call it post-war commentary.  Call it an condemnation of the American Dream.  It is the ultimate bildungsroman.  It is fierce and brutally honest, and in a hipster world where kitsch is cool and heartfelt is passe, it's easy to take aim at Holden.  He does complain a great deal, and because he neither takes action to bring about change, nor offers any hope that change is even possible, those critical of the book can cite a pointlessness, a verbiage, a literary impotency.  Furthermore, because Holden refuses (is incapable?) to partake in the rituals of societal convention, which does require a certain amount of talking about how many miles one's car gets to the gallon, he champions his outsider status, thus proving an easy mark.  But it doesn't make his observations and commentaries any less spot on or painfully accurate.


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