Reading Catcher in the Rye

11 Oct

It’s actually not possible to write a review of J.D. Salinger’s one and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve tried several times now to review the characters, the writing style, the imagery, the dialogue, all of it, but it’s not physically possible. At least not for me.

I read Catcher in the Rye several weeks ago – for the first time. And reading it for the first time at the age of 27 as a self-proclaimed bibliophile makes me feel like both a traitor to book lovers and to anyone who’s been a teenager since the publication of this novel in 1951, including my own teenage self. I’m still not entirely sure how I made it through high school and college without having this assigned to me in one of the multitude of literature classes I took. But it might have something to do with the fact that this is, without question, a controversial and oft-banned book, and I went to high school in conservative South Carolina, where it is quite feasible that this would have been left off the curriculum. And I went to a very good liberal arts college where most of the students would have gone to high schools in much more liberal areas of the country and most likely would have been assigned this book, so it wouldn’t have been necessary to re-teach it to a majority of those students once they got to college. So I fell into a gap of students who managed to get through all of my teens and most of my 20s without reading what is arguably a manifesto for teenage angst.

But reading Catcher in the Rye as a late twenty-something – far removed from any sort of angst that can’t be blamed solely on myself, and not my parents, or the adult world at large – I was annoyed with Holden. I’m not going to pretend that being a teenager is easy, but I am squarely an adult now. I cannot go back and read this with the perspective of a 15-year-old that is rebelling against her parents and her teachers. I am an adult, and as such, Holden annoyed me.

Before I get into that specifically, I understand that this book holds a unique place in the hearts of a lot of people and in society as a whole. The concept of being a “teenager” didn’t emerge until the early 20th century and our ideas of what it meant to be a teenager culturally are set up in the era when Catcher was published. So Holden serves as a kind of Everyman for teenagers everywhere – even those of us that didn’t have any familiarity with him.

However! I think even when I was a teenager, I would have been annoyed with Holden. I was one of those girls in high school that sat in the front row, raised my hand and had more extracurriculars than I knew what to do with. And by the time I graduated, I had enough to fill a resume and still left things off. I was not an antsy teenager. I just wasn’t, and I hated my classmates that seemed to do nothing but complain about how their teachers sucked or their parents sucked or how no matter what they did, they couldn’t do anything right. Which I thought was a load of crap. I worked my ass off in high school; granted I was lucky that I had supportive parents and nothing academically in my way, but neither did Holden. If you’ve been given intelligence, and the opportunity to do well, but you squander it playing the martyr, I just have no sympathy. And I had no sympathy when I was a teenager either.

All that being said, I finished Catcher in the Rye and I got it. I understood why the book is such a landmark for coming-of-age stories, and why people read this as teenagers and are so deeply affected by it, by the story and by the narrative voice. As a piece of literature to critique, I did enjoy it. I had problems with the consistency of the narrative and the plot, and whether Holden is a reliable narrator or not, but overall, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t deeply affected by it though, and for that I feel a bit guilty. Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d been 15 or 16 when I read it, and it would be part of my soul like it is for so many of my peers. But maybe not.

When, as a book blogger, you’re addressing a book that has as much social and cultural relevance as literary merit, it is difficult to separate those elements from each other. Which is why I chose not to review Catcher as I would any other book. I’d pulled out my copy in January when Salinger died, but I don’t think I’d realized how much of an impact Catcher had on people before that. When my Twitter feed exploded with remembrances of the first time reading Catcher and favorite lines or moments in the book, I felt left out and swore to read it. I’m not sure why it took me nearly nine months to get around to it. But I did, and I feel like part of the club now. And yet…also not like part of the club.

Maybe I get this teenage angst thing after all…


6 Responses to “Reading Catcher in the Rye”

  1. flipflopsintherain October 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    I’m actually rereading Catcher right now, too. I loved it as a kid — I was a bit angsty myself, and I think I appreciated reading about someone who was much more tragic than myself.

    Reading it for the second time 10 years later, all I keep thinking is, “Holden Caulfield was the first emo kid ever.”

  2. Jessica October 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    I read this book for the first time as an adult and I loved it. Yes Holden was annoying but then there are very few teenagers that aren’t to a degree (and I’m including my teenage self in that!)

    I think I got right away that essentually Holden was a teenager that was scared stiff of entering the adult world. I understood why he looked down at his friends who went all the way with girls and why he didnt want to graduate. I couldnt relate but I did understand.

    My husband on the other hand found it so annoying that he couldnt finish it LOL

  3. Anna October 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    When I read this book at age 14, I thought it was genius. “Phonies! Every last one of them!” I thought. BUT, then I re-read it when I was 20, and BOY was Holden annoying! He’s a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t have any real problems, but just keeps on moping and bringing us all down. This time I thought to myself: “Get over it already!”

    Thank goodness for Salinger’s real masterpieces: “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” and “Franny and Zooey”. Like no one else (and this isn’t apparent in “Catcher”), Salinger makes love to the English language.

  4. petekarnas October 11, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    I’m solidly with Anna on this one. I found Holden to be insufferable. I forged through the book because it’s a book I know that I should read and because it was short, but it was torture all the way. As I was reading, all I could think to myself was “This is why Lennon got shot?” That and “Why do people feel they need to relate to this brat?” His problems, as such they were, were really no problems at all. I suppose he may have been the first Emo kid, but that doesn’t make him (to me, anyway) any more interesting.
    Granted, I read this book in my mid-late 20’s. Perhaps I was a bit over my teen angst phase at that point in time. Still, I didn’t find that Catcher helped recall those years with any semblance of genuine emotion. To all those who love this book, more power to you. I just couldn’t get it.

  5. pburt October 16, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    The stage of life you are in definitely effects our responses to books. My book group read Anna Karenina a few years ago. Most of us at read it in our early 20’s when we were young, self-entitled, and wanting to be swept off our feet. We thought Anna was wildly romantic. Fast forward 25 years, we have solid marriages and children, etc. immersed in family life. We all wanted to slap Anna and tell her to suck it up and deal.

    Perspectives are interesting things.

    And (shameful confession) I have never read Catcher in the Rye



  1. Tag! You’re It! « a home between the pages - October 25, 2010

    […] uncertain how I feel about reading more books on my Must Read: Challenge list because of my lukewarm reaction to Catcher in the Rye. But the fact that lots of people were lukewarm about Catcher makes me feel […]

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