September 29, 2012

Why I Didn't Get The Catcher in the Rye

My sophomore year in high school, I read The Catcher in the Rye. I considered it just another slightly dull Great Work of Literature that American high schoolers were required to read in order to be considered properly educated. All I took from it was that Holden Caulfield had gray hair and an incomprehensible relationship with his landlady, and that the title of the book was too subtly meaningful to make sense to me.

illustration by Rakka
I checked off that box and moved on. Years later, I heard peers of mine mention how inspirational Catcher was to them as teenagers. "Did they read the same book I did?" I wondered. I heard people praise Caulfield's disdain for "phonies" and admire his cavalier attitude toward authority and refusal to do what was expected of him. None of that came across when I read the book. I just saw a narrative of an odd man doing random things. The characters and setting had absolutely nothing in common with me or my life.

At fifteen years old, I was an avid reader. (Still am, in fact.) My favorite book at the time was Watership Down by Richard Adams, but I also tore through V.C. Andrews' entire pre-mortem oeuvre, anything by Ray Bradbury, and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. These books are all fantasy or have fantastical elements, but they spoke to my reality. True, I am not a rabbit or an orphan; I never fought evil fascist overlords or rode a dragon. But in those books, despite the superficial differences between their characters and settings and my ordinary suburban life, I found a lot of common ground. I wasn't struggling with authority, but I was struggling with emotions. I didn't need to be told it was all right to rebel - I already felt like a quirky outsider, and I needed to hear that there was strength in being unique. I didn't want to drink, smoke, or have sex, and I didn't really fit in with all the kids who were into that sort of thing. I just wanted to find my compadres, my friends, the people who knew me and loved me for who I was.

One's experience with a book is colored by one's experiences in life. When I read The Catcher in the Rye, I have to suppose I was in a very different place than the kids who found it meaningful. For that reason, I don't think the fact that it left me cold makes me an ignoramus, any more than it makes J. D. Salinger any less of a great author.


  1. Catcher failed to make much of an impression on me either... other than to wonder at its lack of impression. Same with The Awakening.
    Perhaps having been exposed to so much media (movies, TV) which had been partly inspired by Salinger and Chopin rendered the original both redundant and antiquated.
    Then again, I also prefer NOFX over the Clash.

    1. You make a good point. I failed to be horrified by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and I wonder if it's because by the time I read that, I'd already ingested a significant amount of murder mystery novels and TV shows.