I’m afraid to read “The Catcher in the Rye” again. At some point in my life, it was one of my favorite books, and yes, I know how dramatic that sounds. But now? I can barely glance at it without feeling an acute sense of vertigo. The burnt-red carousel horse on the front cover seems to mock me from its perch on top of my bookshelf, where it lies unopened and unappreciated. I bought it one, maybe two years ago, under the assumption that I’d want to revisit it every once in a while. “Revisit” — how rich — I can hear the horse laughing from the other room.
They say nobody likes “The Catcher in the Rye” the second time around, much like an actual carousel. Hard-boiled apathy may be all well and good for a teenager, but a true adult is too mature for that stuff. Sooner or later you become smart enough to lift up the curtain, and then, they say, you’ll realize that the man behind it is nothing more than a rich, spoiled brat. Poor Mr. Caulfield, killed by irony. We all grew too old for a book about growing old. But hey, they may be right about him; I just don’t want to find out. I leave my copy of “Catcher” on the shelf, but I make sure to turn it sideways, so that the god-awful horse can’t give me the stink-eye anymore.
I’m afraid to reread a lot of books, in retrospect, especially all of those old fantasy and adventure series I used to like. A few of them, the more popular franchises, have withstood the test of time, but for every “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” and “Maze Runner,” there are dozens of obscure series that seem to exist only in my memory. I tried picking up one of those lesser-known titles one bored afternoon, as its glossy cover was calling to me from a shelf in the local library. I remembered it as a cute, lively children’s series, playing on tropes of wizards and princesses. Of course, I then opened it to find the main villain using a handgun in an early medieval-ish society, and I quickly put it back on the shelf. That was months ago. I have yet to make another attempt.
To be honest, I’m surprised I never caught such a glaring inconsistency, no matter how young I was. I was never the kind of person to ignore an odd detail. I guess it’s more likely that I did notice, but just didn’t care. What difference does it make to a child if the bad guy is using a longsword or a revolver? He could shoot lasers from his eyes for all the good it would do him. He’d still fall at the hands of the hero in the end.
Reading has always been the providence of an imaginative mind, and thus by extension, it is the providence of youth. Anything is possible in a story if you choose to accept it, and when I was younger, I was ready to accept just about anything. Neither the blandest of cliches nor the grossest of inaccuracies could stop me from diving into a new world. All that mattered was the essence of a story, the “spirit of adventure” or whatever dramatic phrase 11-year-old me might have used. Maybe the spirit of being a loser, in Caulfield’s case. It’s the visceral joy we feel when the underdog rises up to win; it’s the perfect catharsis of a well-written mental breakdown. Reading feels best when it is an emotive experience, when your heart has committed to a text even if the rational brain may still find faults.
I’m afraid to reread certain books because I’m afraid that I’ve lost that spirit. On the few occasions that I’ve tried, genuinely tried, to connect with the books that used to bring me so much fulfillment, it’s never the same. Reading, I fear, has fallen into the realm of childhood innocence, along with knee-high socks and sparkly tank tops — something grown out of, but never quite returned to. A source of nostalgia, nothing more.
It’s a rather bleak picture of adult life that I’ve painted, and that’s coming from a 19-year-old. Still, it isn’t absolute. I may be nervous to return to “The Catcher in the Rye,” and I may be giving up “Percy Jackson” for the near future, but that doesn’t mean I’m stuck with skimming New Yorker articles and buying biographies to fill the shelves. I’ve been slowly realizing that I can’t just open an old book and expect to turn into my younger self, but I believe there has to be a different way.
There’s a way to hold onto the old spirit without joylessly mimicking the past. And when I figure it out, Holden Caulfield will be the first to know.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].