“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an 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”(1)
Going in, I knew that J.D. Salinger‘s 214 page classic story the Catcher in the Rye is a controversial book. It seems that most people either deeply connect with this book and it’s unstable but sympathetic protagonist, Holden Caulfield, or they hate the book, and loathe the it’s inexcusably obnoxious, self important main character. I am more in the second camp.
I’ll start with the positives. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, the Catcher in the Rye effectively communicates a sense of profound isolation. Holden’s mental commentary on the people and events around him alternate between the two extremes of being basically sympathetic, and willing to understand his peers’ flaws, and cutting, deriding nearly everyone else as a disgusting phony. He really does feel like a teen struggling to understand why he is the way he is, and why the people around him are the way they are. This is reinforced by the excellent job that Salinger did in giving Holden a distinct mental voice. The writing is unmistakable, and evidently accurately captures the slang and mannerisms of the time. It also reads as being distinctly teen, even if the slang and cultural details are now far out of date. But this life-like representation of the main character is where my problems with the book came into play.
For me, Holden is fundamentally unlikable. He lashes out at those around him, often physically, in spite of the fact that he goes from hating these people to liking, or at least tolerating, them in a space of minutes, and vice versa. He is extremely self important, and views himself as being far nobler and more true than those around him. Admittedly, having to deal with this perception being shaken is a part of his developmental journey, but the result is that he spends most of the book being a self-superior jerk. The block quote above felt like a low-hanging fruit to me, seeing as it is the first sentence in the book. But it really does give an accurate feeling for how insufferable Holden is for most of the book.
All that said, I expect that this book is just not for me. Maybe I just haven’t yet gone through the fundamental uncertainty that may be necessary to connect with the book. But from where I stand now, it was a miserable read full of miserable people, and it offered no benefit to me except being able to say “yeah, I’ve read that book”. And if I’m going to read a miserable book full of miserable people, I’d rather read something about a more personally interesting topic, or at least a topic that I don’t find so dubious as a concept.
In spite of my low opinion of the book, I would recommend that most people read it. Your take on it will vary radically with the sort of childhood you had, your relationship with your parents, your worldview, how you’ve changed as you’ve grown, and all the other things that tend dominate teenage life. To summarize, for others, I recommend it. For myself, I hope never to see the book again. Perhaps for my next book I’ll choose something happier.