Sunday, November 4, 2012


Last week, I ordered a printed t-shirt, and I was finally able to wear it yesterday.

While we were going into a store, a group of girls said they liked my shirt.
Seriously, where were these shirts when I was in high school.

I finished reading 'Catcher in the Rye' by J. D. Salinger several weeks ago, and even though the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, constantly swears and repeats every other line of his inner monologue, he's still regarded as one of the most relatable fictional characters in American literature.

Throughout the novel, Holden recounts his experiences after being kicked out of a prep school, and it's not a new occurrence. He's been kicked out of several other schools because he hasn't applied himself and he's too distracted by students and teachers acting phony. Instead of staying on campus until Christmas break, he decides to stay in New York City for a few days where he's consistently dismissed by adults as being an immature teenager. In a lot of ways, he just wants to talk to someone, but they're either too focused on their jobs or other trivial distractions. Eventually, he decides to visit his younger sister, Phoebe, and his demeanor shifts from cynically dismissing everyone as being dicks or phonies to admiring her child-like innocence. And he admits that the only thing he really wants to do in life is to be a catcher in the rye, a character devised from a misquoted line from a Robert Burns' poem, 'if a body catch a body coming through the rye.' In his mind, he wants to be in a field full of kids passively playing and running around, and whenever one would fall off a cliff or stray too far away, he would catch them before it was too late. In many ways, Holden is somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, and instead of exposing children to the vulgarity and complexities of adulthood, he wants to preserve their innocence and maintain the simplicities of childhood. Afterwards, he browses through a museum where he occasionally visited when he was younger, and he likes it; all the displays and exhibits were exactly how he remembered them and nothing ever changed. In the end, he just wants to move away, somewhere no one knows him and he could start fresh, but he eventually decides to stay at home to be with his younger sister and enjoy her youthful innocence while it lasts.

It's a short book, usually a mandatory novel in every high school AP English class, but it's a classic that has influenced readers beyond the required course curriculum. Personally, I would have hated this book if I had to read it for high school. With its brash and unlikable protagonist and its aimless plot where nothing really happens, it would have been a chore to skim through each chapter every night and take a multiple choice test on certain events and characters every morning. But it's a book that's appreciated by its casual readers, people who feel on the outside and no one really understands them. And in a way, the book allows Holden to be the catcher in the rye; he's able to preserve readers' innocence by reminding them of a simpler time and reiterates that they're not alone.

Regardless of how you feel about Holden, you have to admit that he falls into his own criteria of a phony. Throughout the novel, he acts differently around certain people, his inner monologue differs from what he says out loud, and he blatantly labels every single person that he encounters as one dimensional caricatures. There's nothing really sincere or original about him (with the occasional exception of his red hunting cap), and it's easy to dismiss his vapid judgment as immature or misinterpreted irony. But he also has a point. We've all been in a situation where we've acted superficial; whether it's being friendly to someone you hate or dressed a certain way to fit in. And you can either dismissively label someone as being fake or you can attempt to imagine them complexly.

It goes without saying, but this book (and most others) would be dull and seemingly irrelevant if you don't imagine its characters and objects complexly. This book has stood the test of time because it works so well under the microscope with its metaphorical resonance and deeply flawed protagonist. On the surface, Holden appears to be an irrational, judgmental teenager who doesn't really seem to care about anything, but continuously throughout the novel he exemplifies his pure and untainted desire to connect with people. That's all he wants to do.

Holden's conundrum is best explained through Peter Berger's famous quote that I'm blatantly ripping off from a vlogbrother's video, 'the difference between dogs and people is that dogs know how to be dogs.' As people, we have all of these emotions and ideas to spread, but we're confined within the limits of social norms and the scrutiny of others. When you're younger, it's socially acceptable to blurt the first thing that comes to mind and randomly hug someone you care about, but as you get older, you have to filter what you do and how you do it. In a sense, it's maturity, and the antithesis of being a phony.

It's easy to view Holden as a deeply complex character because we're used to analyzing characters from fictional movies and books, but sometimes it's less intuitive to assume those same complexities within the people around us. Logically, real people are immeasurably more complex than fictional characters, and instead of empathizing with every single person that we meet, it's easier to just label them as one dimensional characters going about their lives.

Personally, I don't view the text, 'Holden Caulfield thinks you're a phony' as an accusation or pretentious judgment bestowed upon anyone, but it's a reminder that we should all attempt to empathize with one another and imagine each other complexly.

And lets be honest, the t-shirt gets ubber nerd points.

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