Friday, November 9, 2012

Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye
By J.D. Salinger

Note #1: Never seen that cover, but I'd love to have a copy of it.

I've been a little reticent about writing a blogpost about Catcher in the Rye. It seems a little personal. Of all the books I've read, Catcher in the Rye and I have the closest relationship. It is not my favorite book ever written but it is close and it is the book I have read the most often (I think the last reading was my twelfth or something). I feel like I'm a bit too close to this story to write anything remotely coherent in blogpost so I'll refrain from that. But I can tell you exactly how my relationship with Holden Caulfield has changed over my years of reading.

I picked up my first copy of Catcher in the Rye at a used bookstore in Campbellville, Ontario when I was 16 years old. It was in an Anything for a Quarter box sitting outside the shop and didn't even have a cover. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the book as something iconic but I think the appeal lay solely in the fact that it was the only book in that box that wasn't a fifteen year old computer manual and I had a quarter in my pocket so... why the hell not, right?

Upon first reading, I didn't get it. It all seemed to be about some dumb, horny kid who doesn't care about school, goes to New York, does a bunch of weird stuff in a few bars, goes to a museum, then gets sick. I remember finishing and wondering what all the fuss was about. I also told myself that was the last time I would ever read that nonsense.

A couple of years later I found myself without a book to read or money in which to buy one (18 year old me does not use libraries). It was the summer before university and I wanted to intellectualalate and academicize myself before my sojourn into the world of higher education. For whatever, reason, the book clicked with me on that second reading. Perhaps it was because I had a couple of years under my belt and I had gone and done weird things myself (Sadly, none of them involved prostitutes in seedy hotel rooms). I found myself empathizing with Holden in a way I could not have a couple years prior. While I couldn't exactly understand his aversion to school or growing up, I could totally understand a lot of what made him tick. He was a kid who didn't get all this adult stuff. I totally understood what he was getting at. Holden was a telling it like it was. Adults were all fake and, while I didn't much care for his disregard for education, I could identify with his passionate dislike for those in positions of power.

I didn't pick the book up again for a decade. It wasn't until my first year in Taiwan that I returned to the football field of Pencey Prep. At the age of 28 I wanted to reach into the novel and slap the living daylights out of Holden. He seemed to me to be a sniveling, whiny, entitled little snot of a kid who, granted may have lost his brother and may have the most uncaring parents on the planet, but he just didn't seem to see all the advantages he was being given. He was allowing so much to slip through his fingers. He had no idea how hard it was all going to be once he was really out of school and none of these well-meaning people like Mr. Antolini and Mr. Spencer would be around to try and help him. I fell hard for Phoebe on this reading. I felt terrible for her and the influence he seemed to have on her. This reading really made me think about my own relationship with my own sister and how I might have warped her.

I've picked the book up over a half dozen times over the last three years as I have found it is a particularly excellent book to teach to Taiwanese high school students. The vocabulary isn't difficult (Holden has a very limited vocabulary) and the kids seem to relate to Holden's angst about school, parents, growing up and life in general. The students and I have a ball discussing and analyzing the bit when Holden describes his dream job of being the catcher in the rye who stops children from running off the cliff into the abyss. It is perhaps the best example of metaphor I have ever used as a teacher since it can be interpreted in so many interesting ways.

As for me, my recent readings of the novel have softened my opinion on Holden. I don't want to tear out his trachea anymore. In fact, I find that I have an unlimited ability to pity him. Talking and slapping would never do Holden any good, anyway. He's got the world figured out and there's very little anyone around him is going to say or do to tell him otherwise (Mr. Antolini comes closest but blows it by being A) drunk and B) creepy). I feel bad, but Holden is the sort that is going to have to learn life's lessons the hard way.

To me, Holden is and remains entirely disconnected from the world around him. He, at no point during the relation of the narrative, recognizes that he represents so many of the qualities he describes as phony. He is both a child and a man and totally disaffected. He's completely innocent and understands nothing about the world that is rapidly changing around him. He is caught up in a maelstrom of emotions and trauma, most likely stemming from Allie's death and cannot seem to move forward with his life. His academic, social and eventual physical failure are entirely due to his refusal to grow up despite the fact that everyone and everything around him is screaming at him to do just that. And after all the madman stuff that happened around that Christmas, he learns exactly what you should be expecting him to learn.... Absolutely nothing.

Like no other character in literature, Holden simply breaks my heart every time I read his story.

At this point, when I read Catcher in the Rye I find myself asking a very singular question: What became of Holden?


Brian Joseph said...

It has been a few years since I have read this but it is truly a great novel. Though I have read it since, I do rememeber long, long ago I actualy wrote a book report ont he novel. I do not recal what grade I was in. it is great that you and others are still teaching this!

Sharon Wilfong said...

I know exactly what you mean about reading the same book at different levels of maturity or seasons in our life. When I read the book, Holden was exactly like a friend of mine-pure narcissism.
Other books for me like that are Wuthering Heights. I absolutely hated it because I didn't think Katherine or Heathcliff got their just desserts. Years later, when I read it again, I realized they did. Now it's one of my favorite books because I understand how great the dialogue and writing is.

bookspersonally said...

I love this reflection on how the book changed for you over years and circumstances. Has always been one of my favorites, was interesting to reread a year or so ago - as a mother now, felt very protective of Holden (wear gloves, don't go with creepy teacher, etc).

Jenny said...

I loved this book...and I think it's because I read it as an adult for the first time. I would not have related or cared for Holden as a teen. My favorite thing about the book is that it means something different to everyone.

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