Archive for January 31st, 2010

BeHolden to Salinger

Like the majority of Americans born in the last half-century, I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school—part of the summer reading program before my sophomore year to be exact, when I was 15. Fifteen—as I believe Taylor Swift reminds us—is a strange time when it comes to reading: You’re stuck between more juvenile fiction and legitimate literature, with nothing specifically geared to you, especially if you’re male.

The Catcher in the Rye is pretty much the book* that bridges that gap between the short stories and novellas I had to read for middle school and the novels required for high school.** Salinger’s 1951 novel is that eminently accessible canonical work, and reading it is an eye-opening experience for so many teenagers because the novel is written on their terms. The Catcher in the Rye is like that teacher you have in high school who doesn’t talk down to you, who doesn’t follow regular lesson plans, and who makes you feel like he really cares. It’s the literary equivalent of Boy Meets World’s Mr. Turner. From its opening lines, Salinger’s novel acknowledges and celebrates the teenage mindset: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

*I mean the article literally; I cannot think of another book that should be read at the age of 15.

**I don’t know if my experience was unique, but in middle school, we had these big textbooks with “LITERATURE” on the front full of terrible excerpts from novels and terrible short stories and terrible novellas like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. With these things in circulation, it’s a wonder anybody from my generation reads at all.

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The Catcher in the Rye, JD and Me

Long, long ago, when I was deeply enmeshed in the process of college applications, an interviewer from a certain school asked me which book that I had enjoyed the most in high school English. I thought about it for a second, trying to determine which answer would be the most impressive, and eventually just said The Catcher in the Rye. As soon as I said it, the interviewer spat out, “I hated that book.” I didn’t get in to the school.

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel is oddly polarizing. There is, quite famously, a large group of Holden Caulfield devotees. People relate to that character in a way that goes much deeper than most people usually relate to literature; the extent to which Caulfield’s alienation resonates with readers is almost frighteningly tragic.

And yet reactions like the one offered by my interviewer are not uncommon. Some people—a minority, but a surprisingly vocal one—simply do not understand the fuss over Salinger’s most famous work. They find the whole story to be solipsistic and self-indulgent. A high school history teacher of mine once felt the need to declare his hatred of the book without provocation. And his criticism was emblematic of what most of the book’s critics think: “I thought Holden Caulfield was whiny and self-centered. He didn’t remind me of me or anyone I knew.” Continue reading

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