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.

In Holden Caulfield, Salinger created not only a memorable character, but also a remarkable voice. To read The Catcher in the Rye is to become intimately acquainted with the psyche of an American teenager—and Holden himself is far more normal and relatable in his role than a Leopold Bloom or an Amory Blaine or even a Huckleberry Finn are in theirs. Holden’s voice isn’t that of a teenager so much as it is that of the teenager: He is the voice of American adolescence, in all its unreliability, its misunderstandings and misinterpretations, its caprice, its recklessness and irresponsibility, and, underlying it all, its innocence and optimism.

The Catcher in the Rye is the book that invites teenagers to literature—both as a character and as a reader. It’s the book that lets you know that required reading isn’t all bad; it can even be really good. Are there better novels? Probably, but this is the one that inspires you to read them.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I too love Salinger, although with all the postings and articles and bios of him over the past few days, I am all Salingered out. So I just stopped by to say how very much I like your avatar: a thoughtful Homer. Yes, verily.


  2. Posted by Dan on January 31, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    I really hated those “LITERATURE” textbooks. I never understood why they existed and who would pay for them.


  3. […] Aught Lang Syne « BeHolden to Salinger […]


  4. Posted by James Schneider on February 5, 2010 at 10:20 PM

    yeah, we still have those. They suck, but…I liked the pearl…


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