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Rules for Anchorites

Letters from Proxima Thule

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Coming Through the Rye
modern lit
Will work when coffee has been ingested. And what better way to ingest caffeine than while thinking about J.D. Salinger.

His death didn't really hit me very hard because I didn't know the man and I have trouble performing the postmodern dance of grief for someone I neither knew nor whose work I enjoyed--possibly this is one effect of, you know, being a hermit. I literally know nothing about the man.

But I know about the book, mainly because almost everyone I know hated it in school. And with his passing I find myself wondering why. It seems like a good fit--make a bunch of disaffected, angry teenagers read a book about a disaffected angry teenager. They'll relate! They'll feel like the school understands them, for assigning such a book. This was the novel we were supposed to identify with, as opposed to Hamlet and Macbeth. And yet most of us recoiled from the book entirely. (I do love the passage the title comes from, though.) It's not that I thought Holden was a loser--I was a loser in high school, I had no room to judge. It wasn't the privilege. I had no money but lots of my friends did. I didn't hold it against them.

I think it's (yet another) instance of making teenagers in the 90s and 2000s read about the problems of teenagers in the 50s as though life stopped evolving and changing in 1969. We get that generation crammed down our mouths every time we turn around--we acted out their narratives in school plays like Butterflies Are Free and watched it in practically every movie--and when I was in school, the other side of the hand doing the cramming was making damn sure we knew what a bunch of lazy, spoiled brats we were and how we needed a war to toughen us up. Holden's story had literally nothing to do with us. It was the opposite of relatable. And yeah, everyone's a phony. But in 1951 that was a fairly bold thing to say. In 1995, when I read it, it was baby talk, and the cognitive dissonance of having a clearly bored and resentful teacher phoning it in to say it was still edgy to call someone a phony was way too much. The violence with which I hated that book is directly related to the system that insisted it was my story, when it was literally my grandfather's story. (Being a teenager in 1951 means being quite a bit older than either of my parents.)

So they're all fucking phonies, Holden. Yes, they are. And they used you to belittle us, and they used you to dismiss us, and they used you to avoid having to think for even a minute about us as anything but a disappointing reflection of their own generation. And we hated you for it, because we didn't know how to hate them. But in that sense, Salinger and his creation did a lot for us. He gave us a book we could bond over disliking without ever quite getting why, and gave school boards everywhere a chance to alienate teenagers and piss them off for a good long while yet.

And that's an investment in the future.

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I never had to read it in high school. In fact, I had it on my "to read" list this year to try and figure out what the fuss was about. Interestingly, I was getting ready to pick it up from the library when I found out he died. Anyway, I'm half way through it now and I think I'm only reading it still because I'm hoping HC'll eventually stop whining and have some sort of epiphany, or that there will be some other point to it.

Maybe I should just give up now.

The whining never stops.

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