Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why I Read It: I think technically it's illegal to be American and not read it.

Summary: Teenager Holden Caulfield is booted out of yet another school and finds his way home, stalling for a few days to arrive about the same time as the letter he expects is being sent to his parents.

My Thoughts: I knew him.

I couldn't believe when I started reading the text how much Holden Caulfield, who narrates his story directly to us, sounds exactly like a great uncle of mine, one who was born about the same time as the character. The ego, the disdain for everybody else, what they do and how they do it, it was all there. Even specific repeated words and phrases - phony, hot shot, etc. - were words I heard every day from my uncle. Having heard the language before, I couldn't put it down.

Our protagonist is kicked out of prep school and sent packing. He could never focus on his studies, save for his English. Instead, he spends his time scrutinizing everybody in the world around him, finding them all to be phonies or bastards, to use his words. He holds respect for a bare few, his younger sister and his dead younger brother among them. The book is one long complaint, as he wanders home into New York City, looking down his nose in his twisted illogical way at every person he meets.

The problem with Holden is that he doesn't know when to stop, when to let his thoughts be thoughts and not leave his mouth. Numerous times while reading the book I found myself thinking, "No, Holden, don't say it!" or disbelieving that he had used specific words in specific situations. He is unfiltered, and it costs him time and again.

He is certainly contemptible, in need of intervention-style learning moments. But he has a soft side.

He has a surprising altruistic streak. In one of his many encounters with random people - a pimping hotel elevator operator, young women visiting the city from Seattle, administrators at his old elementary school - he meets two nuns coming to teach at a school in the city. He offers them $10 for their charity and indulges them in conversation. His ultimate dream, even beyond the twice expressed goal of running away to a place way out west, or up in New England, away from all people, is to save children from hurting themselves. He wants to help, in many ways, but can't get out of his own way.

Holden is disillusioned with adulthood, yet is struggling with getting there and trying it out for himself. He talks big about sex, and then when it is practically forced onto him by a prostitute he somewhat mistakenly solicits, he can't follow through and announces that despite his boasts, he's a virgin. He talks his way into a couple of beatings. He generalizes, constantly. He lets the actions of one person represent entire classes of people: the elderly, teachers, guys who visit his room at school, etc. He instructs us on why we should dislike just about everybody.

It must have been wonderful to read this book when it was thoroughly controversial across the United States, in simpler times when even just the language was enough to initiate book burning parties. But it was certainly wonderful to read it now, nearly 60 years after its release.


  1. I think I need to make a list of books I "should" read. This one is referred to often enough that I probably should know the context.

    1. My brother-in-law and I did something like that, just reaching a stage where we said we should make a list of the classics that we should read in our lifetimes. We've even done it with short stories, and when we see each other we update the other on what we've read. It's almost like he tests the water for me and I do the same for him. For instance, had he not told me how good it was, I probably would not have picked up Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." And the cool thing about classic short stories is that the texts are mostly online.

      You can really start by picking up a Signet classic paperback and checking out the list in the back of the book.