Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

We had a spectacular summer here in New England, but now reality is closing in. The leaves are changing, the days are shorter, and there's a small evening fire in the wood stove. It's a funny time of year--we're sad that summer's over, a little worried about the darkness and the cold, but also looking forward to hunkering down by the fire and taking a break from the good times. No wonder Banned Book Week is in October--anybody who tries to take a book away from me right now gets whopped with an over-sized zucchini.

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The Catcher in the Rye
By JD Salinger
Little, Brown & Co, 1951

Last week was Banned Books Week, in which we pay particular attention to what seems to be a particularly American pastime: Trying to prevent other people’s children from reading books you don’t want your own kids to read. We spend a lot of time in this country arguing about “government interference in our lives.” Fairly often, it seems that those who argue against Big Government are the very same ones trying to control other people’s reading. Go figure.

Anyway, in honor of the season, last week I re-read JD Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in the battered 1961 Signet paperback I last opened in high school. (Book hoarder? Me?) CATCHER is number two on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics, right after THE GREAT GATSBY. I’m baffled why GATSBY is so frequently targeted, but I certainly understand why CATCHER strikes terror into the ultra-conservative breast. Along with John Updike and John Cheever and a few others, Salinger helped to terrify me away from the buttoned-down, suburban, 2.5-kids lifestyle my parents would have preferred for me. They did the same for most of a generation.

To understand why, you have to understand the uneasy world we Baby Boomers shared with protagonist Holden Caulfield—no more terrifying than this one, but maybe a bit weirder because everybody was so intent on creating an illusion of regularity and safety. Our parents had kept Hitler and Emperor Hirohito from our shores, but now The Bomb defied armies and oceans. Our country was in what seemed like an endless war to contain the Communist Menace; meanwhile, unpleasant men with five-o’clock shadow tried to root the Reds out of our own society. It was important to keep reality at bay: Body odor of any kind was our enemy, euphemism was king, bellies were girdled, and heaven forbid that women’s breasts should sag or wobble or look anything like actual breasts.

Then along came Holden, a kindly, befuddled teenager trying desperately not to become a “phony” like the adults and most of the other adolescents in his world. He swears, drinks, and thinks a lot about sex—and of course real kids never did any of that. About to be kicked out of his umpty-umpth prep school, he sets out for a picaresque couple of days in New York City, its wet, cold streets teeming with pimps and whores and barflies and would-be pederasts.

The story’s told first person, from the mental hospital where Holden ends up. You don’t know what will happen to him—maybe he’ll avoid phonyhood, but maybe he won’t. The reason we care so much is Holden’s voice, because he’s us. Nowadays, we’re used to a narrator talking the way we do, with all the halts and repetitions and verbal ticks of real life. Back in the Sixties, when I first met Holden, his voice was a revelation. It was like reading somebody’s actual diary, except the writer was brilliant at story-telling.

I knew Holden was me and I was Holden. I suspect that at least three-quarters of the audience at Woodstock had exactly the same experience.

I’m not saying there would have been no hippies or back-to-the-landers or lifelong Democrats without Holden—there were plenty of other factors at work. All I’m saying is that I’m grateful Holden was there when I needed him, grateful my parents bought that book (and Updike and Cheever) even though it contributed to their daughter’s headlong flight from their lifestyle—and even though the climate of the times was such that my town’s school board banned THE SCARLET LETTER. (As Holden would say: Really. They really did.)

I’m grateful no one prevented my parents from letting me read whatever I wanted. Happy belated Banned Book Week, Holden.