Revisiting the Classics
I went to an academic conference in Little Rock last week, and I’d like to say it was an all-around success. I’d like to say that. But I won’t.
The trip began with the 10.5-hour drive on Wednesday morning from Tallahassee to Little Rock, which is actually a 13-hour drive. There were six of us in the van. About six hours in, I realized that I was not confident in the driving ability of my traveling companions and decided to take the remainder of the driving duties on myself.
“Chris, are you sure you don’t want someone else to take over?”
“No, no. I’ve got it. It gives me something to do.”
Lots of other little things happened in the first day or two of the conference—scheduling mix-ups, too-expensive hotel food, but nothing out of the ordinary. Until the first robbery. On Friday night, one of my friends from Ole Miss had her laptop stolen. That was bad. What was worse is that it happened to five other rooms as well, including the plenary speaker, who was specifically flown in to speak at our conference.
When I found out about the break-ins, I was in a pub across the street, celebrating having given a successful paper. An older scholar rushed in and said, “There’s been a series of break-ins! Lots of rooms on the first floor have been robbed!” After a minute or two of chaotic whispering, everyone went back to their drinks. But I couldn’t. I was so distracted. I walked back to the hotel to see for myself what was going on.
When I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I was going through one of the hardest periods I’ve yet endured in my life. I had just turned 20, gone through a really scarring break-up, and begun to drift apart from some of my closest friends. I spent the summer in my bedroom because the world seemed like too much for me to put up with.
Catcher is narrated by a character named Holden Caulfield who delivers the entire book in a quasi-stream-of-consciousness monologue. He rails against the “phonies” he sees all over the world and is generally just kind of obsessed with what everyone else is doing, constantly critical and negative. The book is often assigned in high school, and people generally have a strong reaction to it, either positively or negatively. It’s a love it or hate it kind of book. But when I read it, I thought, “Eh. That was fine.” I didn’t get why it’s so important or so critically acclaimed until a couple of days later.
I suddenly, unprompted, thought to myself. “Oh no. I am Holden Caulfield. But he’s not terrible and negative like I thought.” The problem with Holden is that he cares too much and doesn’t know how to express it. He really just wants everyone to be okay, but he can’t understand that his version of okay can’t be forced onto everyone else. He says at one point:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Five years later, at a conference in Little Rock, I thought about Holden again. I went rushing back to the hotel, not really to help, but to, in some sense, supervise what was going on. Everyone was okay in the end, although several people lost their computers and jewelry. I tried to go back to the bar, but I couldn’t stand pretending to have a good time while I was worried about everyone in the hotel. I’m not a phony.
I drove the whole way back.