That’s the trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. ~Holden Caulfield

For me, this is the defining statement in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye. This is a book that I’ve often marveled over. Many years ago, when I was in high school, we had to read this book over the summer so that we’d be prepared for a test once school started in September. Like many, I did the CliffsNotes thing back then. I passed the test, but failed at reading or comprehending the object of the exercise; namely, the book itself.

Fifteen years or so ago, I attempted this book for real. I read it. I’ll freely admit that I was one of those clueless morons, a rarity judging by this book’s popularity, who just didn’t seem to get it… whatever “it” was. I was truly amazed at the time that this book was on so many lists as one of the most read books of all time. Currently, it still sells 250,000 copies a year1. It has sold over 65 million copies since it was first published by Little Brown & Co. in 19512.

My impression after my first read of this book was that Holden Caulfield was just a spoiled punk rich kid who needed to have someone kick his ass for him. I mean seriously, the kid was a whack job. If he were around today, his doctor would have him so full of Ritalin, and all those other ADHD candies they prescribe, that the kid would just sit and drool on himself in front of his TV. The kid needed electroshock therapy.

That was then. This is now; decades after the CliffNotes perusal and many years after that first actual read. Someone once said that you have to be ready for a book when you read it. If you’re not ready for it, it’s wasted on you. I think Catcher was definitely wasted on me that first couple times. I surely wasn’t ready for it at 15 years of age nor, evidently, was I ready at 35 or so. I’m not going to say I’m ready now at 52, either. However, I may be a bit more receptive.

The other night on PBS’s American Masters, they ran a film called Salinger. It was a biographical piece about the man who wrote the book I’m talking about here. He was an odd man; most likely a genius, most definitely eccentric, possibly other darker things. I’m not here to speculate on the latter, though. Watch the program if you get a change and decide for yourself. I’m here to discuss The Catcher In the Rye.

After watching the film, I decided to re-read the book. I thought maybe I’m a bit more attuned, a bit more experienced in life, a bit more open-minded than I was at 15 or 35. Turns out that may be the case because I’ll have to admit that the book did make a bit more of an impression on me this time around. I may have caught a glimpse of what “it” is that everyone gets when they read this story. Maybe I see it more clearly because I’m reading through the eyes of a much older man this time. Maybe I can relate a bit better to Holden nowadays.

Regardless, I’ll still stick by my original assessment of Holden. I think he’s a rich little spoiled kid who is very disturbed. I can understand his confusion and angst a bit better this time, though, I think. I can surely relate to his obsessive dislike for all things “phony”. I also, having experienced the loss of loved ones, think I can more readily understand Holden’s near PTSD issues because of the death of his brother Allie.

Another odd thing is that I should have related to his feelings about school all along. I hated school when I was his age. I hated it so badly in elementary and high school that I would sit on the south side of a classroom whenever possible; not because it was closest to a door, but because it was closest to my home. Conversely, I loved to learn. I loved gaining knowledge. I still do, actually. I never got the bad grades Holden did, but I can surely relate to the difficulties he was having in school.

So, here’s what I got from the book this time around…

The world, while being beautiful in many ways, can be diminished by how we perceive it, how we behave, how we view how others behave. There is a phoniness to our current world that Holden would surely detest. It’s much worse now than it was when Salinger wrote this book. Neighbors don’t know one another. The initial impression when strangers come across one another is often fear. Countries and entire cultures are insensitive and uncaring about each other. It seems that the world revolves around the pursuit of whatever material things the almighty buck can bring.

Was Holden really confused? Or maybe he somehow understood what a tragedy it was that everything beautiful in this life was often corrupted by someone writing “Fuck you” on the walls. Catcher is a very deep book; one of those books that people will be analyzing for many, many years. I definitely don’t claim any expertise in this endeavor. I do believe I got a small piece of what “it” is that everyone else gets about this book this time around.

I’m looking forward to reading it again in about 10 years.




1 Statistic quoted in the American Masters film Salinger on PBS

About V. T. Eric Layton

vtel57, Nocturnal Slacker

6 responses »

  1. Josh Sabboth says:

    Very cool!! I also really like the book as well!

  2. It’s strange, isn’t it, how our perspectives change with age? Well, perhaps not quite so strange: we are all different from what we used to be, and, naturally, see things differently.

    When I read “The Catcher in the Rye” first as a teenager, it seemed to me to be about teenage rebellion. It isn’t, of course. In the first place, Holden is not a typical teenager. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to get on with anyone of his own age group.

    Later, I came to see this book as a plea for emotional honesty- a picture of an adolescent, on the brink of adulthood, seeing the grown-up world and not liking what he sees. Admittedly, there is much not to like: forms and conventions merely in place of emotional openness, and, indeed, a denial of real emotions altogether. Instead of emotional honesty, Holden sees only that which is merely trivial and superficial – which he, with characteristic inarticulacy, refers to as “phoney”. But if Holden’s narticulacy is characteristic of teenagers, his thoughts and feelings are., I think, atypical. And I think the question nees to be asked: *why* does Holden feel so strongly about the lack of emotional depth?

    I think this takes us to the heart of the work: Holden cannot come to terms with the loss of his brother. It is an emotional wound that fails to heal. And he cannot understand how or why the rest of the world can continue with its day-to-day business as if this loss didn’t matter. For if even the loss of a loved human being is of no consequence, then can *anything* be of any consequence? This theme emerges quite late in the novel, but everything, I think, has been building up to it: this novel is, I think, a study of grief.

    I often refer to this novel as a “minor masterpiece”. In my youth, I had thought it a profound depiction of the human condiion. It isn’t that. But it takes a very potent theme, and, despite the very limited vocabulary it quite deliberately uses, explores this theme both with humour, and with an emotional openness – the sort of emotional openness that Holden longs for, but cannot find.

    • A “study of grief” you say? Interesting. I can see that. There is a vein of Holden’s inability to deal with the loss of his brother throughout the story, after all. Salinger was definitely opening a door to his inner self when he penned this story. He was an interesting individual in many ways. His hermit-like existence in later years just increased the mystery. Makes you wonder what was it he went through in his childhood/youth that provoked the Holden character down the road.

  3. ebrke says:

    I got a lot more mileage out of Salinger’s short stories 50 years or so ago. Honestly, I quit “Catcher” without finishing it–not something I do often. Maybe I should try again.

    • Oh, I can fully relate to anyone who dumps Catcher within the first 25 pages or so. It’s not a book that I plan on saying “I liked” anytime soon. It is one that I am coming to understand a bit better with every read. Like I said in the article, I’m looking forward to the next read in about ten years. 😉

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