The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

As I mentioned in my previous post, I loved Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I was probably about 16 years old, which is Holden’s age. I read it again in college (20 years old) and I likewise enjoyed Holden’s story.

I didn’t love Holden on this third reading (age 28). In fact, as I read the first sentence, I groaned. Would I have to put up with this kid’s whining for another 214 pages? But in the end, I couldn’t hate Holden Caulfield, even after 215 pages of whining and complaining. His compassion redeemed him for me, and I’m so grateful I reread his story so I could experience it again from this perspective.

As I read Catcher this time, I was mostly mad at his parents. I kept seeing it from the adult-child relationship perspective. Why on earth are his parents sending him away to a boarding school when he needs some actual attention? He recently lost his brother, who was his best friend, and yet he’s expected to go to classes and successfully pretend that he’s okay with everything. There is no doubt in my mind that his depression is normal. It seems that many of his frustrations could have been eliminated if there were some dialog among the family members. He loved his little sister. He loved his dead brother. Certainly, if his father and mother nurtured that love, rather than packing him off to school, it would have helped him a bit. (I’m not saying parents that send their kids to boarding school don’t love, but in this book, the only emotion we get about Holden’s father is that he’s going to “kill” Holden for getting kicked out of school. Is that really helpful?)

But I admit, as much as I disliked Holden’s complaining and his frustrations, the end made me cry. (highlight for spoiler) To think that all he wanted to do with his life was be one that saved children from falling off a cliff; and that he wanted to rub out all the bad words on the walls, one at a time; and that he wanted to make sure his little sister got her $8 back again: that was touching to me. Holden showed that he really did care about people, despite his best intentions, and he wished he could relate to them. That was the tragedy to him. (end spoiler)

As some people pointed out in a comment the other day, the narration is amazingly believable. I think it is well written. But that believable narrator was probably why it irritated me on this reread. He just was too ornery for me.

Have you ever reread a favorite book only to find you now dislike it?

Have you ever reread a book you disliked only to discover you love it now? (I never thought to ask this before, as I don’t think it’s ever happened to me, but Mary’s comment the other day prompted it.)

I don’t think I’ll ever reread The Catcher in the Rye. I’m seriously sick of Holden Caulfield. But I’ll keep my copy of it. Someday I may hand it to my (older) teenage son to see what he thinks.

Holden in School

In June, J.C. Montgomery of the Biblio Blogazine shared analysis of the current argument that The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t belong in the classroom anymore because kids can’t relate to it. I read her post back in June and it prompted me to reread the book. I love her analysis of the arguments and the comments on that post are intriguing too. If you’ve read Catcher (and especially if you read it for school), go read her post.

Having now reread The Catcher in the Rye, I’d have to agree on a few points. Holden Caulfield’s story is dated. I’m not a teacher of an English class, but I look at Holden’s adventures, and I doubt many kids today can relate to the boarding school framework, the smoking, the drinking, the prostitute, and spending the night at Grand Central Station. Maybe I’m too naïve but I don’t think Holden’s night on the town is something 16-year-old boys are going to get away quite so easily today. I don’t think New York City is recognizable as New York City.

Now, as one of the comments on The Biblio Blogazine points out, it’s not always bad to read books that occur in unfamiliar eras or settings. I agree: we learn something about 1940s New York City.

But I wonder along with those who wrote the articles challenge Catcher in school: does Holden’s night on the town teach teenagers anything about dealing with troubles that might actually help them today in dealing with their own frustrations? I don’t think so. I don’t know what books might do so, but I certainly hope there is something else out there.

Do you think Catcher should be replaced in high school curricula? Can teens relate to it still? What books might better help teens deal with their insecurities? (I don’t read much young adult literature and I can’t think of an adult novel dealing with teen frustrations as this novel does.)

As I said, I enjoyed Catcher when I read it as a teen. I related to his ultimate goodness, not to his cursing and smoking and night on the town. In one of my high school assignments about the book (yes, I still have them all), I wrote:

Though he never admits it, [Holden] does not really want to leave his world to join the adult world. He wants to keep his world as it is for the children, innocent.

Ultimately, I don’t think Holden Caulfield corrupted me (take that, book banners!), and I don’t think the different era bothered me either. I liked Holden Caulfield when I was 16 because he wanted to stay a kid.

Apparently, I wanted to as well.

If you have reviewed The Catcher in the Rye on your blog, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Other Reviews:

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I haven’t re-read this as an adult, but I actually quite disliked it when I read it around age 15. I couldn’t understand Holden’s anxieties and thought he was just so whiny for no good reason.

    But I never thought it was hard to relate to because of the period setting. I grew up in the New York suburbs, and the idea of hopping a train to the City and doing things there you wouldn’t want your parents finding out about was not unfamiliar. Especially the idea of going there to be alone, anonymous, hiding in plain sight. I actually remember thinking the setting was the only somewhat familiar thing about the novel, as Holden’s concerns were totally unfamiliar and not relateable for me at all.

  2. I’ve read this one twice – once when I was maybe 9 or 10 (seriously… but I loved it!) on my own, and then again when I was 16 for an English class in highschool, when I loved it just as much. I don’t know that I related to Holden, but I just loved Salinger’s writing, and well, actually, I think I did feel some of that anger and rage that Holden has boiling inside of him (I certain quoted from the book in my highschool yearbook upon graduation). That said, the book didn’t corrupt me (I don’t think), as I didn’t drop out of school or try to kill myself or others, or engage in any other shockingly “immoral” behavior, so I’m with you on the “take that, book banners!” parade. Really, all Catcher did for me was provide me with a book that I treasured and enjoyed reading, and if it can offer the same to other readers, then I say it still has value! (Oh, and I read it in the ’90s, and was clearly not alienated by Holden’s 1940’s antics).

    The thing is, we read so many classics when we’re in school, whether they’re Shakespeare or Dickens/Austen/Doestoevsky/Fitzgerald/Twain etc., and I don’t think the reason why some students dislike those books is because they are incapable of relating to them. Give students more credit than that! We can learn about other times and places through books, and I think that honestly the essence of Holden’s character (if not his exploits in particular) will still resonate with the modern teen. Because teens are balls of emotion, often filled with anger and confusion, they’re trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in, and who they want to be. If that isn’t what Holden is going through in Catcher, then I guess I don’t know what that book is about.

    That being said, I could see the value of potentially reading Catcher alongside a more modern novel, comparing and contrasting the two. I think the key is to keep throwing books at kids & teens (though not literally, I suppose…) to see what sticks. If you offer a wide array of reading options, then they’re bound to find SOMETHING they like, and maybe they’ll discover that reading is something that can be enjoyed!

  3. I really wish I could remember this book. I just retained nothing! I have to reread it. I’m treating it as a book I’ve never read before.

    I’m glad in the end Holden was redeemed a bit for you.

  4. I’m wasn’t a big Catcher fan, but I suspect if I read it now I might be (I’m more emotional now hehe). Something I’ve slowly learned is that sometimes it’s a good idea to put a book you dislike back on the shelf, instead of forcing yourself to finish it, one day it might be more your cup of tea (and saying that I feel I really need to try On the Road again).

  5. My son, now 20, loves this book and totally completely relates to Holden. That scares me a little, but since I know he will get tons more love and attention than poor old Holden, I think he’ll be okay. The main thing I felt after reading this book was that Holden needed a friend. He did whine, yes, but he is a good kid and just needs someone in his life who understands, someone he can trust. I felt bad for him.

  6. I’m glad you ended up feeling some connection with the novel, even if you didn’t love it as much this time around!

    Personally, I don’t think the seeming lack of response to Catcher is kids failing to respond to Salinger in particular. I think it’s kids being angsty and cantankerous, and feeling hostile toward anything they’re “forced” to read…just like Holden Caulfield would have done. I loved Salinger’s book when I read it at 14 (in the 90s), but it wasn’t assigned reading for me; I picked it up on my own. I felt honor-bound to hate everything assigned to me. 🙂 I mean, plenty of books and movies are still being made on this model, and are apparently relatable: Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, and the films Igby Goes Down and Rushmore are a few recent iterations that leap to mind, not to mention TV shows like The OC. I haven’t seen the latter, but all the others involve at least as much angst, soul-searching, whinyness, insecurity, etc. as Catcher. And at LEAST as much smoking and drinking. Which I think is absolutely MORE prevalent now than it was in the 40s, personally. At least, my own high school years involved a LOT of that, and more besides.

    I think reading Catcher (and even moreso Franny and Zooey) did help me deal with my teenage malaise, because the characters in these books are, as you said, searching for something real in the world, something to which they can relate. The fact that the famous “f word” section in Catcher involves him being frustrated that no place remains unspoiled – it’s so touching to me, because he really wants to find something to believe in. At base it’s not nihilistic at all, which I think something like Igby Goes Down kind of is.

  7. Catcher is one of my all-time favourite books. I love Holden Caulfield, despite the fact that he’s a whiny, and so many of his statements are hypocritical. The whole exchange with Phoebe, where he explains why he wants to be a catcher in the rye, or, for that matter, his reaction to seeing nasty words printed on the bathroom walls at Phoebe’s school, is enough for me to love him!

    I read the book at the age of fourteen, for the first time, and have been reading it once a year ever since. Every time I read it, I feel like I take something away from it.

    You’re probably right about the book being dated, but, I’m not sure about removing it from Eng Lit in high school. Surely, the way technology has progressed, and where we stand right now negates the “datedness” (is that even a word?) of a lot of classics?

    As for whether teens being able to relate to Caulfield… surely every teen will be able to talk about a classmate they can’t stand for s/he’s a “poser”, or, they’ll be able to relate to how Caulfield handles his brother’s unfortunate death. Even his relationship with his sister should be familiar to most people who have an older brother/younger sister. I’m 24, and my brother is still protective of me (not overly protective, but always looking out for me, if you know what I mean?). The way he reacts when he thinks of telling his parents about his expulsion just adds to the normal “teen” feel – no teen ever wants to disappoint their parents, but some teens just seem to make a habit of it, inadvertently. It’s almost endearing.

    I, for one, would hope that every teenager reads Caulfield, for, he’s one of those characters that one can’t help but love. Or, so I think, anyway!

  8. I didn’t read this book until recently, so I’ve never been able to read it without being annoyed at his whining. Part of me wishes I’d read it in high school when I might have enjoyed it more.

  9. Kathy, it’s so disappointing when that happens!

    nicole, I can totally understand thinking Holden was so whiny. That’s what the other blog was saying — that kids today couldn’t stand Holden because they thought he should just “go take his prozac, already!” It’s interesting what you say about relating instead to the setting and running away aspects. I guess kids do want to reject authority and be off on their own!

    Steph, I like what you say about giving options: that’s the way to teach people that reading is good, that it might help. There are SO MANY books out there. Maybe Catcher shouldn’t be the only teen angst book.

    Amanda, I think retaining nothing is preferable to being annoyed by his whining! I seriously was afraid it would never end. I was trying, then, to explain to my husband why I was crying for the last 30 pages. “But, even though I hate him, he’s still good!” I said. He didn’t get it.

    Jodie, I considered putting it on the back shelf, but then I wanted to get through it because of banned book week and I needed *something* to review, lol. So I persevered. Ah, well. I think you have a great point. It’s not a bad thing to put away a book for a while.

    Suey, I wouldn’t be scared for your son. Like I said, I loved it too. Holden, at heart, wants to make the world a better place. He wants to keep kids innocent because he, as an older teen, realizes that their childhood is going to end and they’re going to be surrounded by “phoneys” soon enough. He wants to protect innocence. So despite his apparent bad example, he’s probably an okay example for your son! Don’t worry about him, I say.

    I too feel bad for Holden, his absent parents being a main reason.

  10. Mee, I read your post and I totally agree about Holden being a spoiled brat. I couldn’t relate to his running away either, and the entire boarding school scene was odd. But I guess it goes back to remembering it’s a different era, setting, etc.

    uncertainprinciples, I’d be interested to see how well Catcher holds up as you get older. I liked it still at age 20, but something changed in the last eight years. And I’d have to disagree about the “one can’t help but love.” there are some redeeming things about him in the end, but I certainly can (now that I’ve reread it while a bit older) understand why people immediately react negatively to him. So annoying initially!

    I do think it’s something teens should have the choice to read though. Like you said, it resonates with some people very strongly. I’d hate for people to miss that chance to “meet” Holden while a teen.

    Jen, it does seem like one people love or hate, and it seems people tend to love it more when they first read it as a teen.

  11. I have not yet read this book. I have heard of it though.
    I will say, I have teenage children so your question:
    {{Do you think Catcher should be replaced in high school curricula? Can teens relate to it still? }}
    Has made the decision for me, I am going to read this book.
    Thanks for the review.

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