Posted in Books

Is The Catcher in the Rye actually any good?

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I rarely re-read books, and yet 2015 was the year of revisiting my favorites from high school. Over the summer I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, which I wrote about here, as well as my favorite book of all time, Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. While To Kill a Mockingbird slightly disappointed me compared to the first time I read it and loved it, nothing disappointed me about the second read of Boy’s Life, the story of a boy trying to come to terms with adolescence while fighting off monsters, flying bikes through the air, and solving an eerie murder mystery.

I had great joy re-reading those two books from my past, and in September of that year I was at it again, re-reading and discussing another favorite book from my past, one I read at the beginning of my junior year of high school in 2001. Three books that have stuck with me the most since my teen years: To Kill a Mockingbird, Boy’s Life, and J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye.

The Catcher in the Rye floored me when I read it in August 2001, right before school commenced. I was used to reading my high school books slowly, and sometimes reluctantly, but I sped through The Catcher in the Rye in two days, completely absorbed by this new, unique prose style I had never encountered before. So many of the books I had read before were written so formally, often with language I didn’t fully understand. The Catcher in the Rye freed me as a reader, allowing me to fall under the spell of not the words on the page necessarily, but the voice of the main character, Holden Caulfield.

I was also taken with the sprawling, rambling narrative, which went against the norm of the books I’d read before that had clear three-act structures and protagonists with undeniable goals. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden is like a feather blowing through the wind, going where he wants and doing what feels right, and I loved this element to the novel. This book stayed with me over the years, I still think about it from time to time, and in 2015 I felt it was time to re-visit the world of Holden Caulfield.

I didn’t know what to expect on this second go-around. I’m a lot more well-read than I was in high school, obviously. I’ve written countless short stories and many novels and have studied structure and voice and tone, and I was curious how this book would read for me today. I was surprised and so thankful that The Catcher in the Rye read for me pretty much the same way it did back in 2001. Although I noticed more about structure and voice and about what Salinger was doing with this book that I didn’t quite understand in my teen years, I still fell under its spell within the first few pages and never wanted to put it down.

I was first surprised by how modern this novel reads. I find it amazing that the book was written way back in the 1940s, that Salinger was able to latch onto this voice of the future that nobody could have expected back then. Everyone knows that this novel has been banned time and time again throughout the decades, because some people out there think it may be too much for teenagers to take. Yes, there’s anger. Yes, there are a few F-bombs at the end. But Salinger was able to tap into a feeling that many teenagers at the time had buried deep down inside, and he published a book that might have upset more than a few adults but also has spoken to one generation of teenagers after another. It spoke to me in 2001 and it speaks to me now. This is a terrific, timeless book.

I definitely paid more attention to the structure and voice more this time around. It’s interesting me that for the first eighty percent of this book, every chapter features Holden having an encounter with one person, each one different from the person in the previous chapter. He typically goes somewhere new, whether it’s on his school campus or traipsing around New York, and has some kind of experience with somebody. In the beginning he has that great talk with one of his teachers who basically tells him why it was his duty to fail Holden — in many ways this book was a great follow-up read to Tobias Wolff’s Old School, since they both deal with students who have their love/hate relationship with school and then ultimately leave for something better — and then each subsequent chapter details a typically personal and revealing conversation Holden has with someone.

Most books feature specific supporting characters throughout a story, but in The Catcher in the Rye, many appear and then leave, never to be seen from begin. And yet this narrative structure works because the whole point of it is to show Holden’s arc and journey, following him from where he’s at the point of giving up to finally feeling at peace with himself, with his brother’s untimely death, with his relationship with his sister Phoebe, and with his potentially fraught future.

What is really astonishing to note this time around is how incredibly absorbing the voice of the main character is in this. When I read it back in 2001, I liked Holden, appreciated the things he was saying, and enjoyed following him on his eventful journey, but I didn’t really understand voice the way I do now. I find it really interesting that a seventeen-year-old Holden is narrating events that took place when he was sixteen, which technically would make this a young adult book through and through today.

Salinger uses the double I reflexive first person past tense point of view, with the main character looking back on a time in his life, just a few months before. Holden’s voice is funny and sarcastic, and always truthful, and the rambling nature of the sentences give the voice an immediacy that one typically doesn’t find in literature. Even though the book is written in past tense and not present, that immediacy is still incredibly vivid all the way through.

Another interesting aspect to the voice is Salinger’s allowing of Holden to go and on about stories from his past, sometimes as long as two-page block paragraphs, and yet these longer sections are never a chore to read because Holden’s voice is so powerful in its storytelling and in its consistency. So many characters read the same, read boring, in literature, but the voice of Holden is authentic and original.

The other great joy in reading this book was seeing little penciled brackets I made back in 2001 around sentences and paragraphs I particularly liked. This is to date the only book I’ve marked in that I still have a copy of, and it’s amazing, and a little strange, to see that almost all of the brackets I made all those years ago I would still make today. I of course put brackets around any of the moments where Holden talks about his disgust of the movies, since film is everything to me and it’s unusual to find a character in a book who hates movies with the kind of intensity that Holden does.

But I was surprised to find that particularly well-written lyrical sentences, especially ones at the end when Holden is having frank conversations with his sister Phoebe, I put brackets around, like I understood far more back then than I would’ve expected. Penciled brackets are on almost every page of my copy, and reading it again all these years later, I kept wanting to put down more brackets. This book is that good.

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