The Holden Effect and Picking Exactly the Right Book (at the right moment)

The Holden Effect and Picking Exactly the Right Book (at the right moment)

Whether you love to read fiction or non-fiction (or both), every reader should have a few huge reading experiences in their lives — books that lead to big decisions, massive realizations, or a re-framing of a world view. Though I’ve worked in libraries for two decades now, I still love drifting through libraries and bookstores in the hopes of discovering a book that will thrill and amaze me. Throughout those years of work and wandering, I’ve identified some concepts (heuristics, even) that help me help other readers to get the best experience when choosing books. One of those ideas is something I’ve taken to calling the “Holden Effect.”

You might know that Holden Caulfield is the pissant protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s enduring novel Catcher in the Rye. It’s obvious by the way I described young Holden that I read Salinger’s novel too late to identify with Caulfield and find the novel meaningful.

And that’s the essence of the Holden Effect: Coming across a book at the wrong moment to fully appreciate it.

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Margaret Lyons looked at this from a different angle when she talked about “Holden Caulfield Effect” in her 2013 Vulture article. For her, a reader’s response to Holden represented a touchstone for reflecting on personal transformations before and after experiencing a book, a “…kind of emotional doppler effect. [Holden] sounds like one thing as you move toward him and like something completely different as you move past.” For many, the character of Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being Wallflower plays a similar role.

The main difference in our formulations of a reader’s response to Holden, and the effect we independently coined is that we’re identifying different parts of the elephant. While Lyons focuses on the interaction between self-identify and a character over time, my focus is on the mechanism of a reader’s reaction in the moment of reading. She asks, “How do I see this character now, and now, and now?” and I ask “Am I meeting this character or this book at the right point in my life?”

Of course, the age at which you first encounter a book is the first criteria that comes to mind here. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, seems to be a novelist who is best appreciated at age 20, plus or minus five years. His cynical wit and worldview appears to lose its potency as people get older. Likewise, I read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and loved it as a teen. However, upon rereading it as an adult, I couldn’t understand how I not only got through the book but also loved such pedantic drivel as a teen. It should be noted that I’m still a fan of many of Heinlein’s early and middle-period novels, though definitely not all.

But it’s not always that one reads a book too late. It’s also possible to read a book too early in life and not be equipped with enough life experience to connect with it on a mind-altering level. In my case, since the birth of my son, I have had a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of plots with young parents and/or the loss of a child. The lack of life experience also comes into play when reading non-fiction books about, for example, getting older. While a thirty-year old can read and find something to appreciate there, it takes having the experience of aging itself to be able to read an essay on it and feel that the author is speaking directly to you.

Age isn’t the only factor involved with the Holden Effect. Sometimes you can come upon a book at the wrong moment intellectually, like if you haven’t read deeply enough into a genre or a specific author to connect with its conventions. For example, I wouldn’t recommend that someone who’d like to get a taste of sci-fi fabulist Philip K. Dick begin with his intensely odd “novel” VALIS. Readers of PKD would agree that all of his science fiction could be seen as intensely odd, and yet, are not quite as pathological as VALIS.

And it goes the other way too, where a reader is so experienced with a genre that foundational works or breakaway hits may not excite them for various reasons. I can only imagine that many long-time readers of erotica may have found the E L James’s Fifty Shades trilogy overrated compared to its monumental sales. Similarly, while I enjoyed Alfred Bester’s Hugo award-winning, The Stars My Destination, I was not as cowed by it as those who read it when it was first published in the 1950s. At that time, it brought rarely-seen innovations to science fiction, that have since been replicated many times over. As a devoted science fiction reader, Bester’s plot points and writing techniques weren’t as special to me reading it for the first time in contemporary times.

In describing the Holden Effect, I realize that I’m assuming the existence of “book fate” — that there is a right and wrong moment for each person to read each book, and maybe I am and there is. Yet, it’s only responsible for me to also say that age and experience as a person and a reader aren’t definitive factors in the probability of picking a mind-blowing read. Choosing the right book at the right moment is an inexact art, though having done it for a long time, I believe I can extrapolate some tips to help you avoid the Holden Effect in choosing your books:

  • During my wedding I read the poem “Men Marry What They Need” by John Ciardi. Here, in discovering life-changing books, I invite you to ask what do you need right now? Comfort? Stability? A little chaos? Pure entertainment? Examples of enduring love, elegant aging, career success? It’s lovely when such a book finds itself in your hands by accident, but it need not be by chance that you come across exactly the right book. If you recognize what you need, you now have a map by which to orient your search.
  • Use other readers as a compass; what do other readers your age, stage of life, career path, personality type, reading tastes, etc. find enthralling reading? There are usually reasons why some books catch people at similar moments. Likewise, if all the people who are raving about a book are completely different from you (like if they’re teenagers who love Holden Caulfield!), their reading list may differ from yours. While I’m not usually a proponent of following crowds, in this case if you focus on the right crowd, it could be useful.
  • Go beyond the new and the close. Good books have been written throughout history and in all languages so don’t limit yourself to the last twenty years in your country of origin. There are plenty of publishing houses that produce fantastic translations of books that have, for whatever reason, fallen off the popular radar. The same goes for exploring the world of independent publishing; some of the most interesting books these days are coming from small presses.
  • Whether you read a lot or hardly ever finish books, we often get stuck in the same cycles when it comes to what we read and where we find them. Overcoming the Holden Effect may, if you’re brave enough, be as simple as remaining open to the possibility that something off of your beaten path may jar you into a new consciousness. Stay curious and keep it within the realm of your present that the book you accidentally spot out of the corner of your eye may be the perfect one for right now.

The Holden Effect is just one of the many lenses through which to select books including considering your “appeals” and reading tastes and for readers of non-fiction, I’ve also written 7 Simple Way to Find the Best Non-Fiction Books for You. The one constant between this and my other work on choosing books is that in addition to thinking about and browsing books, it’s also helpful to spend time breaking down your own needs and wants. Happy reading!