During school, when I had to study for exams, there were two approaches I took.
The first approach was to lock myself up in the engineering or agricultural library (the latter was more peaceful, the former was more convenient). I would study the exams, the homework, and the style of the instructor, and would then be prepared for the exam. My trick was that I studied to beat the exam, as that’s what got the grades. This seldom had anything to do with comprehension of the material itself.
It was me, my CD player (I was behind the curve, in terms of personal audio technology; I lacked an iPod until one was given to me as a holiday gift from my company a few years ago), and a bunch of notes and books. Depending on the amount of material, I would spend somewhere between two and twelve hours doing this, and then proceed to ace the exams two days later (I never studied the day before an exam, based on some arbitrary advice from some arbitrary source).
The second approach was to sit in a coffee shop and study the material instead. I’d purchase a large cappuccino and a cookie, my treat to myself for spending hours studying. There’s a reason I held down a job and made good money during all four years of college (paying for college), but a side perk was that I could afford to be stupid once in a while, when it suited my purposes. I still miss that job sometimes, and wonder if I’m doing everything wrong.
In any event, the coffee and cookie approach was what I used for classes that weren’t part of my engineering curriculum. Math, sure, but also my literature classes (I took a lot of these, because they were more interesting than most of my core curriculum, and it let me read a book a week for college credits), as well as other soft topics like economics. Economics didn’t really get into real math until continuous game theory. Shame, since it’s interesting stuff.
There was a day whose circumstances I’ve long forgotten. Something wasn’t
right. I was searching for something, and I couldn’t tell you what it was,
because we’re talking about something that happened many years ago. I can’t
remember the details for things that far back. But I was struggling with
something. That much I’m pretty confident of. It was a fall day, I was
wearing an olive coat made of heavy cotton; I’m not sure what I’ve done
with the coat (I think it’s gone), but I remember wearing that coat, because it had great pockets. Fabulous pockets.
I had been wandering earlier in the day, and stopped at the campus book store. I picked up a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, because it was extremely cheap (again, the details elude me, but I don’t think I paid more than three dollars for it), and I figured it was about time I dismissed it on my oh-so-self-important (and now gone) original blog. The blog where I detailed the importance of marriage, and deciding when to marry, and all sorts of other bullshit beliefs I held at the time. What a worthless dumb fucking shit I was back then.
I must have wandered southeast a bit, as I picked up a coffee and cookie. As I say, the details are unclear, but one of the great advantages of my coat was that I could easily tuck a cookie in one pocket, and a book in the other, and still carry my coffee.
So it must have been a marvelous autumn day when the leaves are blowing. A breeze, yes, but the sun was out in force, and it felt warmer than it should. Comfortable. I walked north, and found a courtyard near one of the dorms. In the courtyard was a bench, and that bench became my universe for the next few hours.
I read the book in one sitting, finishing my coffee and nibbling at the cookie. I don’t remember any of the details of the book, beyond how well the matte white cover picked up finger prints and dirt. Maybe my hands were just dirty back then, I don’t know, but the cover looked like this when I finished:
This doesn’t matter at all, but pictures make things more interesting, so there you go.
For those few hours while I read the book, it was just me, the cookie, the coffee, and the book. Nobody else walked by; I enjoyed the privacy of my time with the book. I don’t know for how many hours I read, but it wasn’t yet evening when I finished. And, somehow, the thing was intensely meaningful. There was nothing else in my life, beyond Holden Caulfield. I was Holden Caulfield, as far as I was concerned. Even if I had nothing in common with Holden.
The moment passed, like all fleeting notions, but it was a magical afternoon. Starting with my sophomore year, I managed to arrange at least one day a week without classes, so it must have been sometime after freshman year, but I’m not really sure of the timing otherwise. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is this: There are two types of people, those that make The Catcher in the Rye their own, and those that don’t. I longed to be the latter, but somehow it didn’t work out that way, and things were aligned to insure that, no matter my age at the time, Catcher was going to be intensely meaningful.
I have no idea what the book was about, now. I haven’t returned to the book and I hesitate to re-read it; it was intensely meaningful at the time, and I don’t wish to pollute that moment of my past. I cling to little vignettes of my past from time to time; most of them make me sad. This one makes me sad, too, but in a happy way, and I don’t want to give that up.
I told an abbreviated version of this story to some friends at work at one point, after a comment that went like “There are some things that, if you happen to be the right kind of person at the right kind of time at the right kind of age when you first see it, you’re going to love it intensely.” They then referred to Catcher in the Rye as an example. I suppose it’s no surprise that I found some resonance with this statement. Not long thereafter, the same individual indicated that, for them, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the same experience, in a different form.
I read Chbosky’s book today. I wish I’d read it in high school, though I am not sure I would have fully appreciated it at that point. Also, it wasn’t something I could have read much before my freshman year in college (given its publication date), so I suppose such wishes are irrelevant. It does such a perfect job of narrating the way high school feels, even though my experience does not resemble the narrative in the slightest. The framing and structure of the letters is perfect.
My first instinct is that the ending is weak, but where I can normally say “it would be better if the protagonist offed themself” or “this wouldn’t be so bad if the love interest died tragically,” I realize that the bewildering and somewhat predictable mess that things are left in may actually be just about right. The abrupt halt of the narrative may indeed be perfect. And, despite being a decade out of high school this year, I still find the book intensely meaningful. This may not be a work of literature that stands the test of time, but it means everything to me, for reasons I can’t yet grasp.