Poll a group of reasonably well-read adults what their favorite book is, and you’ll likely hear several enthusiastic The Catcher in the Rye* responses. I originally read this infamous novel three years ago and emerged disappointed. It receives so much hype that I expected some staggeringly brilliant work that would forever change my life. Instead, I came out the other side appreciating cultural Holden Caulfield references, but not much more. Now that I’m revisiting the book, I feel quite differently about it all. Let me clarify my newfound interest in Caulfield terms; here’s a run-down of my re-read in Salinger-speak:
The book is very entertaining, if you want to know the truth. It’s sort of simple; it reads just like a conversation. No kidding. Caulfield sort of tells you about a couple of days in his life, occasionally looking to the past to elaborate on some of his references. It’s accessible enough to finish in one sitting, I just wasn’t in the mood at the time. I started it on the train one morning when I was feeling really lousy. I had just come back from D.C. Very big deal. Instead of swallowing it whole, I read a few pages and then started to chew the fat with a girl next to me who said her name was Jenna. I felt a little sorry for her because she had these big bug eyes that kept distracting me when she would speak. Anybody would have a tough time listening to old Jenna because of her goddamn big bug eyes. I started thinking about how many important things she’s probably said in her life that nobody ever heard because they couldn’t fully pay attention. It made me depressed as hell, if you really want to know. Then, she began telling me about a movie she had seen earlier that day. She kept saying how marvelous the movie had been. I don’t know why she had to ruin a perfectly good conversation with something as phony as that. I mean for Chrissake, can you imagine your whole day revolving around a goddamn marvelous movie you saw that afternoon? It probably had an actor with a great big smile who probably goes home and beats his kids when he’s done filming. I couldn’t shoot the bull with her anymore after that. I got out at the very next stop even though it wasn’t where I’d planned. I just had to get out of there, I was depressed as hell all of a sudden. I thought to cheer myself up I might give my niece a buzz. Whenever I ask about her day at school, she sort of gives me this smirk like she thought I’d never ask, and then she tells me all about everything that happened, in great detail. It kills me.
There ya have it. Back to Lyndsay speak. The whole book is filled with quintessential Caulfield phrases like “chew the fat”, “if you really want to know”, “it killed me”, etc. I totally get why readers find him unbearably annoying—I thought the same thing my first go-around. The second time though, I ran with it. I embraced the angst. And once you get past how he’s saying it (if that even annoys you in the first place), you can really resonate with what he’s saying. I was initially distracted by the medium of Salinger’s message, but now I can identify with Caulfield’s exasperation. Sure, he extrapolates negativity and takes his complaints as far as they can possibly go, but the book is so beautifully human. Sometimes he feels things and he’s not sure why. Sometimes he hates something with a passion but also backs up his hatred with meticulously formed reasons. Caulfield is an incredibly perceptive teen that picks up on people’s peeve-inducing habits and notices an alarming trend in society as a result. Everything is going to shit!
The novel centers on an identity crisis within the young man. There’s something childlike in his disdain of virtually everything and everyone in his life. He reacts to his surroundings as though nothing could placate him and oftentimes he exhibits hypocrisy, as when he calls out phonies but brags that he’s a terrific liar. On the other hand, there’s also something mature in his assessments. His keen awareness of people’s true motives and his careful articulation of what bothers him reveal a layer of wisdom that sets him apart from the ordinary troubled teen. He’s stuck in the in-between of life phases and he hasn’t mastered how to cope. Just because he’s confused doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. After all, he wants to be the catcher in the rye, standing firm in the rye field and catching kids if they start to fall off of the cliff, presumably into the perils of adulthood (Salinger, 173). *Still waiting to be caught, Holden*
When it’s all said and done, he’s not the only confused one. Admittedly, the novel is associated with several well-known shootings. Most notably, John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, possessed a copy of the book at the time of his arrest with the inscription "To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.” Obviously, I do not think that my interpretation of the book is the only plausible one. Still, in my opinion, the novel ends on a rather positive note, all things considered. For the very first time, Holden claims that he “felt so damn happy” (Salinger, 213). Shortly thereafter, he says that even though he has badmouthed pretty much everyone he knows, he still misses them (Salinger, 214). There’s room for hope here, and in spite of all the pessimism, Holden presses on. I think it misses the mark to conclude that the book is merely a recipe for violence that equips angry men and women with justification for murder.
Which brings me to my next point. Banning books. Sigh *rolls eyes*. Even in the 21st century, Salinger’s work receives an onslaught of censorship challenges. I will never understand an argument that fights against education and exposure in favor of policing so-called morality. I don’t think it’s an overly liberal viewpoint to assert that interaction with beliefs that are not your own serves to effectively refine and enhance those beliefs. Let’s take advantage of the fact that we live in America, and relish in our ability to have these discussions out in the open. This isn’t Reading Lolita in Tehran. Certainly, The Catcher in the Rye might make you uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad and it definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. In fact, that’s even more of a reason to indulge—you can discover why it makes you uncomfortable and learn something about yourself! The horror!
I digress. Anyway, I chose to review this novel in honor of Banned Books week, a knowledge-friendly time of year that celebrates the freedom to read from September 27th-Oct 3rd. Shame on all of you schools who stripped students of the opportunity to feel less alone in the world because they had Holden Caulfield by their side. I’m a born-again Salinger-appreciator and I encourage you to either crack this open for the first time or revisit his work and give it a second chance. At most, it will make you feel something. At least, you get some amusing takeaways. For instance, now if I don’t enjoy a film, I can advise, “Don’t see it if you don’t want to puke all over yourself” (Salinger, 139). Overall, I give The Catcher in the Rye 5 out of 5 goddamn camel humps. Read it and weep about the world (but then also consider that maybe it’s tolerable).
*Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1951. Print.