The Catcher in the Rye has a long, famous run as one of the most popular books over the last 60+ years. The renowned J.D. Salinger novel has been on high school reading lists (although it was originally intended for adults) for decades — and has also been banned repeatedly. It is both beloved and despised. I guess I would fall into the “despised” category, because I hate The Catcher in the Rye.
It’s one of those books that I knew I should read eventually, as it seemed to be a staple in any serious reader’s collection. In fact, I was embarrassed to admit I’d never read The Catcher in the Rye. So, I grabbed my copy off the shelf and launched into what I presumed would be a life-changing experience. After all, the book gets a nod any time TV shows or movies are investigating murders or schizophrenics. I remember one episode of Law & Order: SVU when a bookshelf in a suspect’s apartment held multiple copies of the book. It must be something, right?
Holden Caulfield, a teenager with a life of privilege and advantages, was annoying and whiny. The theme of the book is one of alienated youth seeking an identity in a world filled with “morons” and “phonies.” However, the novel takes place over the course of a December weekend in New York City, where Caulfield is killing time before heading home to face his parents’ disapproval over his expulsion from private school. Boo hoo.
He spends the weekend taking cabs and staying in a hotel and drinking at bars. Oh, and let’s not forget the Broadway play with his old girlfriend. And a young prostitute (with whom he does not have sex). And a visit to a museum. Perhaps part of the problem was the novel’s mythical reputation; I was expecting something extraordinary and mind-blowing. The Catcher in the Rye delivers nothing even close.
I have to admit that part of the reason that I hate The Catcher in the Rye is because my expectations were ridiculously high. Perhaps I am too old (I’m in my 40s) to “get” the significance of the book…or maybe it’s become dated. After all, Holden Caulfield’s rebellious weekend is hardly shocking in today’s world. In the ’50s and ’60s, of course, his behavior and thoughts were outrageous.
Caulfield represented resistance and rejection of the conformism that had taken hold in post-war America. Although a self-professed immature 16-year-old, he seems quite aware of this new materialism that has a stranglehold on his world. He has no tolerance for the inauthentic personalities of the people he encounters. However, I recognized all these potential issues and tried to put them in perspective for this exercise and still was left wanting.
As I kept reading, I figured I was being led into a horrific scene of violence or debauchery or a mental breakdown or…something. Nothing happened. Nothing. And while nothing happened, Holden Caulfield capitulates on just about everything. And his immaturity? I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. Sometimes I lost that battle.
I got bored sitting on that washbowl after a while, so I backed up a few feet and start doing this tap dance, just for the hell of it. I was just amusing myself. I can’t really tap-dance or anything, but it was a stone floor in the can, and it was good for tap-dancing. I started imitating one of those guys in the movies. In one of those musicals. I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang imitating them.
If you extrapolate that kind of writing over 214 pages, you have The Catcher in the Rye. Think I’m kidding? Look…
We got to the Edmont Hotel, and I checked in. I’d put on my red hunting cap when I was in the cab, just for the hell of it, but I took it off before I checked in. I didn’t want to look like a screwball or something. Which is really ironic. I didn’t know then that the goddam hotel was full of perverts and morons. Screwballs all over the place.
Wow. And I’m not alone in my dislike (although I don’t think I just dislike it; I feel like I literally hate The Catcher in the Rye) for this novel; for all its praise, it gets its fair share of criticism as well. A 2009 New York Times article quoted today’s teenagers as finding Holden Caulfield “weird,” “whiny,” and “immature.” One high school teacher reported that she “had a lot of students comment, ‘I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.'” I hear that.
Literary critics Joan Didion and George Steiner derided the moral shallowness and “relatability” of the novel’s main character. In spite of all these things, a quarter of a million copies are sold annually. Of course, that’s in part due to its assignment in high schools as well as its iconic status. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker called The Catcher in the Rye a “perfect book” in American literature, along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. He wrote, “[N]o book has ever captured a city better than Catcher in the Rye captured New York in the fifties.” The fifties.
Juxtaposed with current day, The Catcher in the Rye is like a glimpse at an alien culture. I have no expectation that my teenagers will relish this book. After all, when I read classics, I consider the era in which they were written and I still can’t wrap my head around the praise for this book. Every time I see it on a “Top ____ Books of the 20th Century” or “Most Important Novels in American Literature” or what-have-you list, I shake my head.
Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? What did you think of it?