Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

#27 in my book challenge for the year, and #3 in my summer reading challenge, I feel abashed that I couldn’t finish Catcher in the Rye over the weekend for a 48 hour reading challenge, but I did finish it Monday. I wanted to read it prior to reading King Dork, but the library due date for KD made that inadvisable. I definitely recommend reading both, with Catcher first.

First, I am not a member of the Catcher cult, as it’s called in KD. I wasn’t forced to read Catcher in high school. Whether this says something good or bad about my high school English education is debateable, but I think it was bad. Over four years, the required reading list was short–probably what I’d go through in a month or two nowadays. Instead of entire novels, I remember reading a lot of excerpts from big hardback textbooks with shiny pages. I read Catcher on my own at some point as part of my self-education (or autodidacticism, as it’s called at Mental Multivitamin) to compensate for deficiencies in my schooling.

Catcher, like KD, does a good job portraying what a social horror high school is, and how difficult it is to survive. Catcher is also historically important, not just as a good novel, but because it helped to establish the Young Adult novel paradigm–it gave a distinct voice to a teenaged character who told the story in first person, and sometimes in present tense. It also proved to publishers that teenagers were legitimate members of a critical reading audience.

Because I have affection for the YA niche, I thought I would love Catcher. Perhaps I was negatively influenced by the de-pedestalizing of Catcher in KD, but I finished Catcher feeling profoundly ambivalent. I started the book annoyed at Holden and his affected voice. I then realized it was bluster, not unlike Gatsby’s, and that it hid a character who seemed to have a good head and a good heart. As the story wore on, though, I began to sense the presence of the writer showing off by creating a singular character, and having him repeat, ad nauseum, some suspiciously Salinger-esque negative opinions of phony people, Hollywood, and society in general. What bothered me most, though, was Holden’s repeated idealization of childhood. This novel is supposed to be about the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, but I found Holden’s view of childhood at least obsessive, if not fetishistic.

Catcher in the Rye deserves to be a classic. It’s well written and historically important. It does not deserve to be uncritically lauded as an every-person’s book, though. There is some creepy, disturbing stuff in there, and I don’t think all of it was intentional.

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