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Book #1: The Catcher In The Rye

Quick Facts:

  • The Catcher in the Rye is J.D. Salinger’s only published full-length novel.
  • Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with 65 million copies sold total.
  • According to Modern Language Review Journal, the novel was the most censored book in high schools and libraries between 1961 and 1982.
  • The novel has influenced notorious criminals (Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.) as well as former presidents. George H.W. Bush said it was one of the books that inspired him.
  • Sean Connery’s reclusive character in the movie Finding Forrester was loosely based on The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger.

My Thoughts:

This is the first time I’ve ever read The Catcher in the Rye. How is it that a 34-year-old writer with an English degree has never read one of the classics of American Literature? I don’t know. It’s shameful, really. That’s why I thought I’d start this 101 book journey by reading this Salinger classic.

Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most controversial and most-censored novels of all time. The controversy around the book is for a couple of reasons:

First, crazy people love it. John Lennon’s murderer—Mark David Chapman—was fascinated with the book. A copy of the novel was found in his possession the night he shot John Lennon—with the words “This is my statement” and Holden’s name written inside the book. John Hinckley Jr. was also a big fan. Police found the novel in his hotel room after his assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.

Second, parents of teenagers historically hate it. It’s a book about a vagabond, rebellious, drinking and smoking 16-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield, who goes on a three-day romp through New York City after he is kicked out of an elite prep school. Since the protagonist is a teenager, teenagers would naturally be drawn to the book.

Until recently, though, when teachers assigned the book as school reading, all hell would break loose. That’s mainly because the language in the novel makes The Sopranos look like an episode of Barney. For a book published 60 years ago, that’s saying something.

The book is a quick, easy read. Holden narrates in a casual, stream-of-consciousness style, which adds to the authenticity of his character. He’s a teenager, and he narrates like a teenager.

Teenage angst. Loneliness. Relationship frustration. The no-man’s land that lies between childhood and adulthood. These are the themes of Salinger’s novel.

The Catcher in the Rye is punk rock in novel form. As a Generation Xer, the book feels almost like I’m reading through a Nirvana album—which makes it easy to understand how it’s been so successful through multiple generations. It’s timeless. Really, Salinger’s novel was punk rock before punk rock.

And what teenager hasn’t felt like Holden Caulfield? Holden is a teenager stuck between the authenticity of childhood and the “phoniness” of adulthood. He’s a rebellious kid with the mouth of a sailor and the propensity for dropping GD in every other sentence. He’s also holding onto his childhood—his favorite person in the world is his younger sister, Phoebe—while finding fault in almost every adult he encounters.

He reminds me of the person who is quick to point out the faults of others but never sees anything wrong with himself. For instance, he repeatedly points out the fakeness of other people (his date’s ex-boyfriend, his teachers, and adults in general), but he also admits to being a fabulous liar and seems overly concerned with his appearance (e.g. the orange hunter’s hat).

But that’s the beauty of the novel: Salinger wrote Holden’s character in such a way that he is always true to the complex nature of himself—an immature teenager trying to find his way in a fast-moving world (both literally and figuratively)—with all of his contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy in tow.

Other Stuff

The Meaning: I kept waiting on the significance of the term “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden explains it in Chapter 22. In short, he’d love to save kids from the edge of a cliff that is adulthood.

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

Highlight: I loved this bit of insight from Holden as he was getting ready to leave Pencey Prep after getting kicked out because of grades. Profound stuff, I thought. Do you ever regret not being able to tell a person—or, in this case, a place—goodbye?

What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by.  I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them.  I hate that.  I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it.  If you don’t, you feel even worse.

Lowlight: The fact that The Catcher in the Rye was J.D. Salinger’s only published full-length novel. He did publish many short stories and novellas, but he spent his last 50 years in near total seclusion from the rest of the world. This brings up the question: When you have a talent like Salinger, do you have a responsibility to share that talent with others?

Memorable Line: “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.” –Holden Caulfield

Final Thoughts: The Catcher in the Rye is a classic of modern American literature. If you want to consider yourself “well read,” you’ve got to read it—which means I wasn’t well read until a few days ago.

Up Next: To Kill a Mockingbird

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? If so, what are your thoughts?

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43 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hello, Catcher in the Rye was a comfort to me when I was a teenager and Salinger’s work still resonates all these years later. Especially the Nine Stories.

    Salinger wrote using a formula as a template, which intrigued me when I learned of it. But i never had the patience to delve back in to his work to learn exactly what the formula was about. Of course, it’s not really about a formula anyway, it’s about the words and how the words effect you.

    When Salinger died last year, The NYT’s posted an interactive mapping of all the places Holden visited in Manhattan.

    Thanks for talking about your plan. It’s a wonderful idea, and a pleasure to read about. amp

    Like

    February 5, 2011
  2. Loved your review! As another 34-year-old writer who has never read Catcher, I partake in your (now appeased) shame. You have inspired me to get off my butt and check it out, post haste! My thanks to you.

    http://thewuc.com

    Like

    February 6, 2011
  3. Chris Narbone #

    Great post! I just read Catcher in the Rye (mostly influenced by your list). I’m Gen X’er as well and made the same comparison to a Nirvana album. I like the way the novel reads because it’s matter of fact. My only gripe about this novel is that a bunch of stuff happens, but doesn’t seem to follow any real plot format that’s familiar to me. As a writer, I’m confused and in awe. Catcher in the Rye is an American classic novel, and definitely broke ground for a lot of modern literature and even music.

    Like

    June 1, 2011
    • Jess Denham #

      I think the brilliant thing about its lack of any real plot format is that one of its central themes, the journey into adulthood, doesn’t have any real plot format either…

      Like

      May 4, 2013
  4. Kathryn A. Brown #

    I found your blog while doing to research on Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I checked out what other books you have read on “The “List.” I read Catcher in the Rye a few months ago. Don’t feel bad for not reading the book sooner. Here I am at 53, just reading it. I wasn’t caring much for it until I researched why it made the list. Since I didn’t have many issues when I was a teenager, I couldn’t relate to the book. Your post helped me to understand book and appreciate the significance of it. I am just someone who likes to read and I don’t do a lot of critical thinking about a book. It does help to know something about the history of book and about the author when I read something that isn’t exactly holding my attention. Your blog is going to be very helpful in that respect. I look forward to reading more of your book reviews.

    Like

    July 10, 2011
  5. allenavw #

    Hello! Really enjoyed your review, it added some perspective for me. I am 20 and just finished The Catcher in the Rye a couple of days ago. I’m currently working through a list of my own of sorts, and like yourself decided I better read some classics!

    In general I did not like The Catcher in the Rye. I considered Holden to be tedious and un-interesting to read about. The story had no plot and I find it un-satisfying how he came to no real revelations or improvements in his life. I found the dialogue and the thoughts of Holden to be repetitive and exhausting to read. I understand the stream of consciousness style and how one may argue that Salinger is only writing it in the style of a teenager. That being that perhaps we lock onto certain phrases (that killed me, phony, etc). Still I found this a wholly un-satisfying, un-relatable read that is not particularly worthy of it’s high stature in American Literature.

    That being said it did have moments of great clarity and insight. I particularly loved his dream/vision of being the catcher in the rye. I also enjoyed how he described his sister Pheobe.

    Anyways, sorry my comment is so long! You’ve got a couple of books on your list that are on mine as well, so I’ll check back :)

    Like

    October 7, 2011
  6. Luke #

    Another great review…
    I’ve read ‘Catcher’ several times, always expecting to have some great epithany afterward, but it never happens. I love the book, and Stream novels are my favorite,but time has softened the impact of Catcher in the Rye in my opinion.

    Like

    October 10, 2011
  7. For me when I read it as a teenager I found the self-obsessed existential angst of the protagonist a little dry. Is the book famous because it is so completely unremarkable and devoid of interesting writing and insights on the period and of life in general? Only misanthropes think everyone else is stupid and phoney.

    Like

    March 19, 2012
  8. Sometimes I also wonder if Salinger shouldn’t have published another novel. But I guess, if I would have written such a magnificent piece of perfection I also might have settled back. Since Salingers stories deal with the same topics, they seem to be HIS topics. Up to today no other adolescent literature protagonist sitting on the fence between childhood and adulthood touched me as much as did Holden. Propably Salinger would have written anotehr one if the Catcher wouldn’t have been so perfect.

    Like

    July 20, 2012
  9. this was the first post of yours I read and it happened to be your actualy first post – what a coincidence!

    Like

    November 29, 2012
  10. i have just picked catcher in the rye for my creative writing piece in English LIterature and cannot wait, i first read it for English when i was at school and thoroughly enjoyed it so when i had to pick a book this was one of the easiest decisions ive made. :)

    Like

    December 6, 2012
  11. Jess Denham #

    This is one of my all time favourite books. I enjoyed your review! I would say that there is one crucial word missing from it though: innocence. To me this was at the very core of the book. Holden lost his brother to leukemia at a young age and what I found the most poignant is how hard he battles to protect Phoebe. The anger he feels at seeing the ‘Fuck You’ on the wall and his dream of saving the child from falling off the cliff into the big, bad world of ‘phoney’. As you say, this is ‘a quick, easy read’. What it is not however, is simple. I think too many people read this without giving it the thought it deserves. One to read multiple times I reckon!

    Like

    May 4, 2013
  12. Jess Denham #

    Sorry just to add, I think what I struck me the most about this book was how Holden’s desire to preserve childhood innocence is poignantly juxtaposed by the inability to halt his own angst-ridden journey into adulthood.

    Like

    May 4, 2013
  13. I read Catcher in the Rye in high school and I just didn’t get it. Here’s this spoiled rich kid, bitching about God knows what and I just didn’t get it. And I still don’t get it. Have since read Salinger’s short stories and loved them but have no desire to go back to this one.

    Like

    September 24, 2013
  14. Lucille #

    Don’t know if you catch posts to the early books. Taking a chance here..I hope you saw the excellent PBS American Masters presentation on Salinger’s life and works on 1/21/14.. More books coming soon from his writings while in seclusion!

    Like

    January 22, 2014
  15. Mike #

    I read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, I remember feeling as if I was missing whatever it was everyone else was getting from the book, because honestly I was not impressed. I re-read Catcher recently and I feel the same way I just don’t get all the hoopla. I mean it’s well written but I didn’t walk away with any profound lesson learned. Just an opinion.

    Like

    June 10, 2014
  16. I read Catcher in the Rye again yesterday and I still love it, he’s so quick to point out the flaws of others and can’t recognize a single flaw in himself. He takes great admiration in being a liar and crazy at times.I also love how he is so impulsive, going off on tangents that have no link to what is going on in the present time. My favourite part has to be when Phoebe asks him what he would love to do and he struggles to come up with one. It is my favourite book by far. I’ll read it again soon!
    I love the continual cursing throughout the book. Also constantly saying ‘It kills me’

    Like

    July 10, 2014
  17. I love Catcher in the Rye, it’s my favourite book. We had to read it in my final year at school and it really divided people – either kids loved it and thought Holden was a genius, or they complained that ‘nothing really happens in the novel’. As a teenager who was a big angsty, I could relate so well to Holden. I still try to read the book at least once a year, and it makes me chuckle every time.

    Like

    August 19, 2014

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