By Connor Deith
I’m not kidding, you should read this book. Not because it’s an intelligent book, but because it’s the kind of book where, when you’re done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. Mostly, I’m saying you should read it before it gets turned into a goddam movie.
I’m not sure if I’d ever want to call J. D. Salinger up—it’s physically impossible for me to, he died in 2010. Salinger was a recluse his whole life; he sat through his last interview in 1980, and his name would only emerge from then on in newspapers reporting his legal battle. His life prior to his silence, however, is full of intrigue. Not to diminish the tribulations of other authors who participated in the major conflicts of the twentieth-century, but for the vast majority of literary combatants, including the likes of Hemingway and Vonnegut, two men who witnessed the Spanish Civil War and the horrors of Dresden respectively, they were somewhat spared from anything quite as catastrophic as our history of the D-Day landings has led us to believe. Salinger, on the other hand, was present on that day in early June, 1944. He was also present at the Battle of the Bulge. He embarked on a journey in which he ended up at a concentration camp in April 1945, where fellow Americans liberated what was most probably a Dachau sub-camp. The Catcher in the Rye was the first fully formed novel to be published by Salinger after the war. Yet, The Catcher in the Rye had nothing to do with the conflict, instead, it recounts a week in the life of Holden Caulfield, a downtrodden 16-year-old trying to bum his way around New York City after being expelled from his school. As stories go, it ranks as one of the least inspiring I’ve read; a teenager slumming around a city, running into a series of degenerates and estranged members of friends and family, before eventually going home. But of course, it’s what goes on in those chapters that matter, and it’s the impression you’re left with that lasts long after you’ve turned the final page. Here’s why.
I’m confident in saying that every teenager can relate to Holden in some capacity. The breadth of issues Salinger writes covers virtually every aspect of teenage life. Holden tries to play all this off to some extent. He openly admits to his history teacher, for instance, that it was his fault he was failing in school for simply not trying hard enough. But I would say, that it is Holden’s innocence contrasting starkly with his surroundings, that is arguably the most salient aspect of the novel. Like life itself, the adulteration of his innocence develops throughout the novel. First, he leaves the bubble of his school, because he doesn’t want to encounter his parents after being expelled. However, I believe that he leaves in the vain hope of stumbling into something, or someone, meaningful. Most of the altercations Holden gets into are superficial, supplemented by his desire to gain reassurance from others, rather than building constructive, reciprocal relationships. The fear of responsibility, and of going out into the world alone, is the driving force behind the narrative. It gives the reader the impression that despite the difficulties one must face in life, it’s important not to shy away. Abandoning this fear of change, something that we see Holden slowly coming to terms with, is conducive to progress. My interpretation is that it is the reader’s role to embrace these changes as they are because, on the one hand, they are an inevitability.
I found Catcher to be profound for these reasons, but it was especially resonant for me because, at the age of 16, I could directly relate to Holden’s disdain for everyone else. However, Salinger’s writing didn’t lead me into being a petty, selfish, insolent loiterer. Instead, it taught me to embrace the value of talking openly to others. As such, the last lines of the novel still stick with me: ‘It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’ I would argue that this, coupled with the message the novel imparts, is an invitation to do the opposite. But, my message still stands that this is a book you should read sooner rather than later. After all, it is a ‘coming of age’ novel, so it would be of little use to those who can no longer relate in quite the same way, as only a perturbed, self-indulged teenager can.