Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Catcher in the Rye

Like most High School students I was assigned various books to read through out the school year (and sometimes during winter or summer vacation). I dreaded it. I would sit the books on my nightstand and look at them with distrust as if they were going to spring to life and bite me. I hated every book we were forced into reading and it was a rarity when I actually enjoyed a book that was assigned to us.

The Catcher in the Rye was one of those books. I couldn’t tell you the exact year I had to read it in High School nor what my teacher had said about the book. I don’t particularly remember the lessons given or any of that (important) stuff. What I remember is reading the book and actually enjoying it. I went so far as to going out and buying my own copy, which was completely unheard of for me during High School. I was very stubborn and only stuck to one type of genre (supernatural, naturally) and nothing else. To buy a classic, let alone a book that had been a required reading from school, was unbelievable.

But buy the book I did and it has gone with me from High School to college to my years of being an “adult.” Finally, with my move ever present in my mind (can you tell this entry was written a few weeks ago?) I wanted to reread the book. I had every intention of reading the book but a week before I was to move I realized I still hadn’t read it. Not wanting to add even more books to my moving supplies, I grabbed it off the shelf and dove in.

All I can remember from High School is that I loved the book because it seemed so real. How did this guy from the 1950’s write a book that seemed so accurate for a kid today? In my mind the 1950’s were very classy and proper and teenagers from that day and age were nothing like teenagers of the 2000’s (I’m aging myself, I know). They didn’t curse, they didn’t talk about sex, they didn’t understand what we were going through in the present. But when I read Catcher I was taken back; Holden Caulfield cursed and talked about sex, he got drunk and he just left his school! This kid was rebellious and breaking rules and I got to read this book for school? Awesome!

Reading it now, about ten years later, I can see the appeal to a teenager and I certainly understand a little more of what’s going on in the book’s pages.

Holden Caulfield is an awkwardly tall sixteen year old with half a head of gray hair who is telling his story (the entire book is in his voice as running dialogue of the mind) from, what it seems, to be a mental institution or hospital after the events that take place in his story. He recounts a few days before Christmas and when he became “sick” with a series of rambling peeks into his mental state as he talks about various subjects, hoping from one topic to the next – whether he is discussing his opinion of people (particularly phonies) or being nostalgic.

After flunking out of his boarding school he decides to leave the school before Christmas break, taking a train to New York, and seems to have no clear direction or plan of what he’s doing next. He hops from one idea to the other and has a series of misadventures along the way.

It seems clear now that Holden is suffering from depression or something similar to it. He apparently has been failing out of different schools, one after another, and seems to have little control of his life.

He curses up a storm, discusses the sexual activities of classmates, and even has a brush in with a prostitute. He drinks underage, smokes up a storm, and generally does all of those things you aren’t supposed to do as a teenager. No wonder it appealed to me when I was a teen. This kid was doing it all!

One character I remember fondly is Phoebe, Holden’s little sister, and even rereading the book now I loved her character all over again and it’s obvious that Holden adores his little sister. For a character that seems so jaded about the world it was refreshing to see how he reacted to his little sister (not to mention how he acted to his brother, Allie, who died three years prior).

The book, although published in 1951, is still prominent today and loved by many. Some believe that Catcher is a passing phase, a book that is doomed to disappear because the educators who list it on their class reading lists are reaching retirement age. But I feel that this is unlikely, considering how many students are still being introduced to it today. There seems to be a clear line between those who love or hate the book. Those who love it seem to love it passionately and carry it with them as they age, those readers will be the ones who continue to give the book a known status. There has also been numerous controversies involving the book but I’ll get into that in September with my Semi-Annual Banned Books Week posts. 

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