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