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Thoughts on “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for Banned Books Week in September. It took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say about the novel, so my review is a bit delayed. Better late than never, I suppose!

About the Book:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (cover)

Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of multiple well-known boys’ schools. In fact, he begins his story just after he’s been expelled from Pencey, his latest, and is waiting out the final days of the term before Christmas holidays, when he will leave Pencey for good and return to New York City. One night, a few days before winter break begins, Holden decides he’s too “sad and lonesome” to wait the term out at Pencey. He packs his bags, gets on a train to New York, and spends the next few days killing time in the city, wandering from hotel to bar to museum, calling anyone he can think of, and avoiding his parents.

The novel really only spans those few days, from just before Holden leaves Pencey to just before he sees his parents. It’s bookended by just enough mentions of “this crumby place” to make you suspect he’s not narrating from home or school. These brief paragraphs are all we really get of Holden’s future beyond the story he tells.

My Thoughts:

How, exactly, does one review J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye? Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by four years of high school, but I feel a composition exploring themes and unraveling characters would be more appropriate than a blog post. The difference between high school and now, though, is that I thoroughly enjoyed the reading and wouldn’t mind writing that paper!

I never read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. It was an option, but I chose to read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston instead. As I opened the copy of Salinger I’d gotten from the library for Banned Books Week, it occurred to me that I had no idea what the book was about. After reading the novel, I feel my question was misguided. It’s not what the book is about that’s important–it’s who.

Holden’s voice is what made The Catcher in the Rye for me. It’s rambling and unfiltered and exaggerated, teeming with verbal idiosyncracies and reeking of Holden’s personality. If you haven’t yet met Holden, here is a taste:

Anyway, I put on my new hat and sat down and started reading that book Out of Africa. I’d read it already, but I wanted to read certain parts over again. I’d only read about three pages, though, when I heard somebody coming through the shower curtains. Even without looking up, I knew right away who it was. It was Robert Ackley, this guy that roomed right next to me. There was a shower right between every two rooms in our wing, and about eighty-five times a day old Ackley barged in on me. He was probably the only guy in the whole dorm, besides me, that wasn’t down at the game. He hardly ever went anywhere. He was a very peculiar guy. He was a senior, and he’d been at Pencey the whole four years and all, but nobody ever called him anything except “Ackley.” Not even Herb Gale, his own roommate, ever called him “Bob” or even “Ack.” If he ever gets married, his own wife’ll probably call him “Ackley.” He was one of these very, very tall, round-shouldered guys–he was about six four–with lousy teeth. The whole time he roomed next to me, I never even once saw him brush his teeth. They always looked mossy and awful, and he damn near made you sick if you saw him in the dining room with his mouth full of mashed potatoes and peas or something. Besides that, he had a lot of pimples. Not just on his forehead or his chin, like most guys, but all over his whole face. And not only that, he had a terrible personality. He was also sort of a nasty guy. I wasn’t too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.

Long-winded? Meandering? Yes. That’s Holden.

Crazy as he might have been, I really liked Holden. The poor guy is disillusioned with pretty much everything in his young world, so his attitude is as sour as they come. He acts badass, but he’s just a nice guy underneath. Despite all the swearing (seriously, the most foul-mouthed of sailors would be proud), I can see why this book is often a favorite of high school English students. Holden is relatable in a way many other classics characters are not.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Holden quotes:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

Your Turn!

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? If so, how old were you when you did? If not, do you have any interest in it? And of course…what author do you wish was a “terrific friend of yours” so you could call him or her whenever you liked?

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  • http://theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    I never had to read it in high school, and starting to read your post made me realize I hadn’t a clue what it was about! (I may have confused it with Catch-22 for a second.) Knowing the plot, it sounds a lot more interesting and appropriate for high schoolers.

    • Erin

      For the longest time, I assumed it was a novel about baseball. Isn’t it funny how a book can be part of our awareness for so many years, yet we have no idea what it’s actually about?

  • http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com Charlie

    I need to read this book soon, I’ve an aim to read famous and classic books of which I’ve named this as one of them. Interesting you say you could write an essay now, I feel that way a lot of the time! I’ve only recently known about the plot from blogs and it’s weird because while the subject doesn’t interest me I have little doubt that I’ll like it.

    Right now I’m thinking Charlotte Bronte, because she answered everything that I questioned, but I’m not sure we’d make good friends beyond that.

    • Erin

      I’m like you in that the plot really didn’t appeal to me, once I found out what it actually was. But, I’d never read the book and felt that I should. I ended up being glad I read it. It’s still not really my kind of book, but I enjoyed reading it. Funny how that can happen.

      It’s terrible, I’ve never read any of the Bronte sisters. Jane Eyre is already on my list, though, and now I’m extra intrigued!

  • http://www.buriedinprint.com BuriedInPrint

    I never had to read it in high school English, but I did read it when I was a teenager and I loved it. (Even though it was about a boy and I normally gravitated towards girl narrators.) I wish that Carol Shields was my “terrific friend”, though I don’t really remember Holden being so bookish as to have wanted one himself, so now I want to re-read!

    • Erin

      You’re right in remembering Holden as less bookish. He only mentions books a couple of times, the same way actors come up occasionally, and movies, and a few other topics. I just thought the quote was really cool!

      It would be interesting to reread, though, if it’s something you read and loved as a teenager. I’d be interested to hear if it holds the same power upon rereading.

  • http://www.fizzythoughts.com softdrink

    I read it for the first time this year, but I didn’t care for it. Too much teenage angst…and I must be getting old, since I can’t relate to that.

    Good question about what author I’d want as a terrific friend…without thinking too much about it, I’ll go with Christopher Moore, just because I’ve always wanted to ask him “where do come up with this stuff?!”

    • Erin

      I can absolutely see where Catcher in the Rye would come off as over-angst-y. It was borderline so for me. I definitely felt like I could understand Holden, though, even if I couldn’t really identify with him.

      Good author answer! I’d say that’s a great reason to want to be able to phone an author whenever you wanted.

  • http://www.sillylittlemischief.blogspot.com Linda

    I read Catcher In The Rye for the first time in high school. I reread it several times in college and in my early 20’s. I was in love with Holden back then.

    • Erin

      I’m curious, did you find that, as you got older, you identified less with Holden? It seems like the kind of book where, if you read it and love it early enough, it might hold onto its initial magic.

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    My experience with this book has been strange. I read it in 2001 when I was on a goal to read one classic a week that year. I read it, but it didn’t stick. I felt completely neutral about it, and soon after, I forgot everything about it. The only part I remembered was from a passage on my SAT practice tests, not from the book itself.

    Then this year, right around when Salinger died, I decided to reread the book. This time, I was sort of annoyed with Holden and he bored me, but mostly I was still neutral. Rereading the book didn’t spark any memories of the last read (really unusual for me), and now, 8 or 9 months later, I barely remember the book. I’m sure in a year or two, I’ll have forgotten it altogether again.

    • Erin

      I can see where Holden could bore or annoy a reader; he definitely needs to grow up. I can also see where teenagers would identify with and love him. From me, he elicited something like pity. Poor guy has a lot to figure out, I thought. It’s so interesting to me that a book that’s beloved by so many people can be so completely forgettable to someone else. I think what will stay with me is my impression of Holden as a character, but not much beyond that. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t anticipate reading it again.

  • Jenni in KS

    I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye twice, once in high school (junior or senior year) and once about four or five years ago (mid 30s). The first time I absolutely hated it. I hated Holden Caufield, his attitude, and his view of life. I thought he was a self-centered little prick that needed to get over himself. Sure, he’d been through some bad stuff, but so had others. He needed to suck it up and get on with life or work out his problems in a more productive manner.

    The second time I read The Catcher in the Rye–to see if I could figure out what all the fuss over this book was about–I had a little more empathy for Holden, but he still irritated me. The one saving grace in his character and the entire book was Phoebe and his need to protect her and others like her. I just wish the realization wouldn’t have come at the very end of the book. Perhaps then we could have seen him do something besides wallow in his own self pity.

    Overall, it was a depressing book. I don’t require that a book have a happy ending, but I do like to feel as if it’s moving toward a resolution and that there is some hope in the situation. Catcher in the Rye leaves the reader with very little hope. After a long journey through darkness, there is very little light visible at the end of the tunnel. I also didn’t care much for Salinger’s writing style, or perhaps that was just Holden’s voice that grated on me.

    There were a few parts of The Catcher in the Rye that I remember liking or nodding in agreement to, and one was the quote you included. If I could choose one author to be friends with, it would be John Steinbeck. Everything I’ve read by and about him makes me think we would be kindred spirits. There’s an author who could delve into the deepest, darkest aspects of human nature and still leave the reader in wonder at the beauty and complexity of the soul and with hope for its future.

    • Erin

      Wow, you might be the first high school reader of The Catcher in the Rye I’ve heard from who outright hated it! I can totally see where Holden would come across as irritating and self-centered. And I agree that there was nothing hopeful in pretty much the whole book, including the ending. I did love the parts with Phoebe. I think it was those glimpses of a different Holden that made me think maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.

      I need to read more Steinbeck. When I was a kid, my mom read me and my siblings The Red Pony without realizing what it was about. My younger sister, a horse lover, and my mother were a bit traumatized by the story! I don’t recall much of the actual story, but the memory of my mother’s and sister’s reactions has kept me from picking up any Steinbeck myself. But I should probably get over that fear :-)