Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?

This is a book you must read.I have been thinking about this post at Forever Young Adult ever since I left a short comment, mainly because of all the commenters unloading on Holden Caulfield, and then throwing in folks like my beloved Lizzie Bennet. (Seriously? Someone petitioned to have Pride and Prejudice removed from her reading list? For the love of all that is holy, why?)

I think all of us have read books we were told were supposed to be classics, and we didn’t understand the fuss. We didn’t like them. In fact, we hated them. And we wondered if there was something wrong with us. This book is supposed to be a classic, right? That means lots of people love it, and if we don’t love it, we probably just didn’t get it.

Not true.

Books do become classics because people love them, and they stay classics because new people come along, read them, and love them, too. But I don’t think every book is for every person, and I think we sometimes assign books at the wrong time. I suspect that might be the case with the person who didn’t want to read Pride and Prejudice. I have taught that book to ninth graders, and they weren’t ready for it at all, and it was a mistake to teach it to them. Then again, Jane Austen is such an important British author for students to be exposed to. This year, instead of watching the books I love suffer the cruel hatred of my students, I offered them choices for a Jane Austen Book Club: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. None of my students signed up for either iteration of Sense and Sensibility, but I had a group of girls and one savvy boy who wanted to read Emma. Even though it wasn’t on my list, did I let them? You bet. They were choosing it. And that’s what makes the difference. It’s hard, but we have to let kids choose what they read more often. I am not advocating that we end class novel studies. I think a balanced approach works. Will students always choose the classics? No. I think we have to be OK with that. What we want to do is foster readers. Readers are people who will pick up classics later on, perhaps when they’re ready for them.

When I first read The Catcher in the Rye in high school (on my own, not assigned), I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t like Holden. When I read the book again in my thirties, I found new sympathy for Holden, and there are some beautiful passages in that book. The scene in which Holden prays to Allie to save him from disappearing is gorgeous and sad.

I am well aware that a lot of people strongly dislike, nay hate my favorite book, Wuthering Heights. I myself am at something of a loss to explain why I love it so much. I don’t really like the characters all that much, and usually that’s an absolute prerequisite for me. One thing I have done in my classroom the last two years is show the 1998 film so students at least have a grasp of the plot before we read. After watching the film two years ago, a group of girls in the back of the class applauded when it was over (note: this is not a common occurrence). I mentioned to that class that I found at least two Facebook groups dedicated to the eradication of Wuthering Heights. I’ll never forget my student Jake’s reaction. He turned to look at me, incredulous look on his face, and said, “Why?” I love that he was so dumbfounded. I didn’t have time to teach the book that particular year, so the movie was all the exposure we had. One student liked it so much that I gave her a copy of the book, which she read and proclaimed her favorite. She has since thanked me twice because it is now her favorite book. She only had room to take a few books with her to college, but, she informed me, Wuthering Heights was one of them.

Image via Brontë Parsonage Blog

Last year, I showed the film first, but before I did, explained to the students what this book meant to me and how scary it is to teach books I really love because they might not like them, or worse, they might hate them, and I explained how soul-crushing that is. I told them I was handing them something very personal and valuable to me when I handed them this book, and I begged them not to trample on it. Surprisingly, it worked. I don’t mean to say they all liked it, but they were kind to me about it. One student admitted to me that he didn’t really care for it, but he seemed to appreciate the fact that I shared my own feelings about the book. Another girl made me all kinds of paper dolls of characters from the book using a graphics program (software or online, I’m not sure). I asked her if she had liked the book. She said, “I can’t get it out of my head.” She looked kind of far away for a moment, then walked out the door.

What is the point of all this? I’m just wondering how many of us who consider ourselves readers can remember reading a book everyone else seemed to love, or was considered a classic, and we didn’t like it? Mine was Crime and Punishment (review here). What do you think English teachers or parents or anyone else responsible for fostering budding readers should do to encourage readers? Is it OK if we never read classics?

P. S. For the record, I cried a little when J. D. Salinger died.

photo credit: joseph.antoniello

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14 thoughts on “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?

  1. I have never read Catcher in the Rye! Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books though! I know when I was in school I hated almost every book we were made to read. And the ones I didn't hate I typically didn't care for. I think that at that age most students just don't have the life experience or maturity to appreciate those books. The Awakening, for example… I think if I were to read it now I may get the main character a little better. But THEN, I thought it was the worst book ever!! I think teaching the classics isn't a bad thing, but expecting students to have the same appreciation as us isn't necessarily good either.

    • Oh, I'm so glad you like that book, too! Sometimes I feel so alone (ha, ha!). I can easily see why a teenager might not like The Awakening. I didn't read it until I was nearly 30, so I had a different take. I can't say it's one of my absolute favorites, but I liked it. I think a lot of us have trouble with the balance between teaching the classics and teaching appreciation for books.

  2. I think exposing students to classic books when balanced with contemporary or YA fiction is great. We just finished reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was afraid my 10th graders (from New Hampshire) wouldn't be able to relate, or would find some of the content disturbing, instead many of them have really enjoyed it. Also, I agree that telling students that a book has personal meaning for you is valuable. If nothing else, it might make them pause before assuming it's just another book they "have" to read.

    • Clarice, I am often surprised by what students will like. I have a male student right now, for instance, who loves Toni Morrison. He read Beloved over the summer after reading The Bluest Eye in my class last year. I also have a few students who regularly pass along their book recommendations, as I pass mine along to them.

  3. I hated Catcher in the Rye, and I'm okay with this, but I am hell-bent on reaching a point where I love Wuthering Heights. I'm rereading it in February, and this is going to be the time that I love it.

    • Jenny, if I might offer a suggestion, try the audio version narrated by Janet McTeer and David Timson? I think it might contribute to your conversion enjoyment. Writing about that book listening to the soundtrack today has made me want to read it again. *Sigh*

  4. I used to teach Jane Eyre and never really liked it, but I could see some students really did. I have had trouble communicating my love for Huck Finn, but I try to remember how much I hated Joyce in high school and loved it as an undergrad a few years later. I've also learned to love books as I've taught them rather than just read them — Mrs Dalloway has become one of my faves when it left me cold as a reader.

    There is a huge gap between my students and the target audience of almost every classic we read, so I am amazed when so many of the books touch the least likely readers. I had a girl in class who rarely attended and dropped out in grade 11. I ran into her a few years later and she smiled and showed me a tattoo on her arm of the text 'I am not resigned.' We had read some Millay and she said 'Dirge Without Music' had haunted her ever since.

    • You know, I think it's important for teachers to expose students to books that the teachers might not necessarily like, but that the students do, as you did with Jane Eyre. I think it does make a difference sometimes to teach a work because you are approaching it in a different way. It could explain why I liked Catcher better as an adult. It's funny too how you never know what will stick with students.

  5. I read "Catcher" three or four times as an adolescent, because I was determined to find out why everyone liked it so much, but every time, I hated it. I just couldn't find a way to sympathize or empathize with Holden at all. Once I started teaching it, however, I have grown to appreciate it much more, and now my heart breaks for him. I think I can see him more sympathetically now that I am a mother, somehow–I see his loneliness and isolation in a way I didn't when I was a lonely teenager myself. I think I can also see the problems of privileged people more clearly now tat I have spent years teaching them.

  6. Hey Dana, I'm currently a Junior High School student who just finished reading Catcher in the Rye and I was just wondering if it was "right/okay" (I say right/okay because Literature is supposed to be multi-interpretive meaning however the reader sees it should be right in their eyes) to hate Holden Caufield. I was wondering because the other day in English class, one of my friends openly stated that she hated Holden Caufield and my teacher outright attacked her for it. We were only mid-way through the book at this point and so my teacher kinda threw a fit for making such a claim when we haven't even reached to the end yet.

    As we got closer to the end my teacher kept trying to sway our opinions towards liking Holden by showing us how sweet and innocent he is and how we should sympathize with him and what not. But after reaching the end, I can't bring myself to like Holden. I mean sure I sympathize with him but I still think he's an idiot. He may have matured towards the end by realizing how adulthood isn't game, but that doesn't change the fact that he tried taking easy way outs by drinking, smoking, and roaming around New York by himself. Thanks :]

    • Benji, for what it's worth, you have my permission to hate Holden. I think we all like different types of characters and respond to different books. When I first met Holden in high school (at your age, if memory serves), I hated him, too. I also felt like he took the easy way out. It was harder to face life, and I was frustrated when he didn't do it. Once I was much older, I did find some sympathy for Holden. I think he is broken and ignored by his family (except for Phoebe). I think he feels guilty that he lived and Allie died. He carries a lot of anger and distrust inside him. A lot of his actions, I came to believe later, resulted from some of these problems. I think your teacher really likes Holden. As a teacher, it can be a hard thing for us to share books and characters we like with students because students sometimes make these sorts of judgments about characters we might have lived with and loved for years in our head. I can't criticize that because I know that feeling. On the other hand, I think readers have the right to the response that they feel. I hope that helps!

      • The EASY WAY OUT?! HA! MY ASS! Do you realize how hard it is to survive in this world without money or at least a high school diploma? Do you know how hard it is to be homeless? I would say the way he refused to take was EASIER.

        You don't have to like the book. But there is absolutely NO REASON to hate Holden for being right, in a way. I mean, look at this world! We are nothing but a bunch of selfish conformists! Or have people forgotten that? Before you judge and/or hate, walk in their shoes. You wouldn't be so ignorant if you were depressed yourself. Just because you never were depressed doesn't mean you shouldn't understand what it's like. Not everyone is happy like you are. You could have been born with his life, but luckily you live a happy one. But that gives no excuse to only care about ourselves and to rather die than fight for what's right. You can't POSSIBLY blame him for being depressed. If you do, you probably are a conformist.

        • That's ridiculous. Did you read anything written in this blog post? I think I made it quite clear that this was my initial reaction to the book, which has changed, by the way. Even if it hadn't, everyone is entitled to their personal opinion and reaction. I think you ought to take your own advice regarding prejudice, or at least read before you jump in and make an argument.

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