Classics Challenge: The Catcher in the Rye
Image from Penguin
Both of us knew very little about J.D. Salinger’s classic 1950s novel before reading it apart from a name, Holden Caulfield, and a general consensus — you’ll either love it or hate it.
“I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It's nice.”
This is the first of the classic titles on our list that I wish I’d read earlier in my life. This is full-scale teenage angst — one for the misfits and those who see the world differently. It’s basically got early 2000s Jo AKA the difficult years written all over it. It’s also really not for everyone.
Holden Caulfield isn't a particularly likeable protagonist and if you don’t take to the writing style at the beginning, you’re probably not going to warm to him much throughout the book. He whines about everyone and everything: people are phonies, or crumby, his criticisms cover roommates, friends, teachers, even family. The negativity can be draining at times, but it's balanced out by some of the most beautiful, insightful and funny lines I've come across. (Personal favourites: “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.” and “Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”.)
But delve underneath the smart-talking facade and you find a much more complex character. What Salinger manages to capture so well is the uncertainty of those younger years when you feel like you know it all, but know deep down that you don’t; the faux bravado of someone on the cusp of change, caught between a childhood they’re not ready to leave behind and an adult world they’re not ready to move towards.
In his mind, Holden’s already grown up but his distaste at adults and the way they conduct themselves marks how separated he really is. He’s obviously smart but flunks out of school repeatedly; he tries to connect with people but fails; he goes to bars but can't get served; he picks fights he can’t win. He’s essentially his own worst enemy, failing tests he sets himself to prove a point, self-sabotaging to prevent himself from moving forwards.
Holden wants to be the catcher, the protector of innocence against what he sees as the phoniness of adult life. And that's the sadness at the core: he's the one that's crying out to be caught.
(Where do the ducks go?)(4.5 / 5)
I definitely agree with Jo, to get the very most from reading this classic, you'd ideally read it during your tumultuous teens or early twenties. Bonus enjoyment points if you are male too, I think. However even though I didn't read this book when I was at a more similar stage in my life to Holden, I still really enjoyed it.
My first feelings when I finished the book were to take a deep breath and recover from the continual stream of consciousness and over-analysis. It's almost exhausting to be bombarded by Holden's inner dialogue for the entirety of the book, but as someone who is a professional over-thinker, it was kind of a familiar place to be!
During the time we spend with Holden, he is deep in his teenage angst, and for him no one else really exists as a three dimensional person. They are the supporting actors and scenery that are only there to serve his life and storyline. In the rare occasions he ever shows empathy or understanding for another character, it's because he has been exposed to their lives outside of how they relate to him.
I think reading this in my thirties, I can look back objectively and see that during our formative years, when we are so focused on working out who the heck we are and how we fit into the world, you are utterly selfish and unaware that other people have an inner world that is just as complex as your own. You realise now that it is actually ok, as we all need to go through that experience to come out the other side as some resemblance of an ‘adult’. Salinger captures that phase perfectly with this story, the confusion, fear and angst are all there. I do wonder how many people who read this as a teenager have ended up coming back to it as an adult and re-reading it with a different, more removed perspective.
Much like Franny and Zooey, this book won't be for everyone, especially if you don't immediately engage with the writing style, but I really enjoyed being inside Holden's head for a little while. But now it's time to get back to my own (much less judgemental) over-thinking.(4 / 5)
We read Seb Lester's beautiful foil lettered edition, which you can buy here.
Missed our previous reviews? Catch up on our classics challenge so far.