Book Review :: The Catcher in the Rye

My book club chose The Catcher in the Rye as our August selection. We were feeling the need for a male author, and with the demise of Salinger earlier in the year, it seemed fitting. It was a re-read for most of us, and I’m not very good at that – I’ve talked about that here before – but I do think that some books warrant re-reading when you’re in a different time and place.

Not this one. I think that The Catcher in the Rye should come with a warning: “If you’ve ever written a mortgage check, do not read.”

It is the story of a weekend in the life of Holden Caulfield – a 17-year old just days away from dismissal from prep school. He decides he’ll preempt the formality by leaving on his own, and so he takes the money his grandmother has sent him and checks into a hotel in NYC, careful to avoid his home neighborhood. What fills this plot is Holden’s cynical, vulgar and at times unreliable stream-of-consciousness on authority, sex, social nonacceptance and rebellion.

I first read this book in either high school or college, and I remember loving it. Holden seemed like an intelligent but misunderstood young man on the brink of a great revelation. Twenty years later, he comes across as a spoiled and unappreciative brat. Pencey is the fourth prep school Holden has been kicked out of. This time he’s flunking out – the only course he passed is literature and he says that’s because most of what he’s doing is a repeat from a previous school. There is never a question that the reason Holden is flunking out is lack of motivation. He simply doesn’t care.

The only thing that Holden does seem to care about is Phoebe, his younger sister. Toward the end of the novel he sneaks into his parents condo to talk with her. It is here that the title phrase is revealed: Holden has a vision of children playing in a rye field on the edge of a cliff, and he is standing on the outer rim to catch and save anyone who might come too close to falling off. (It is also a misquoted allusion to a Robert Burns poem.) I see an irony in this vision Holden has of himself when he is also teetering on the brink of his future.

There is no doubt that Catcher in the Rye has a place in the cannon – Salinger has expertly captured the universal themes of rebellion teenagers feel. He created a classic cultural icon for questioning authority and particularly “the establishment.” So should you read it? Absolutely. Just know that depending on how responsibly you are for paying your own bills, you might not like it.

But what about you? Have you re-read The Catcher in the Rye since your youth and had a similar experience, or do you still love Holden’s rebellious tendencies? Is there another book you’ve re-read and were surprised by having a different experience than your first?

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4 Replies to “Book Review :: The Catcher in the Rye

  1. An indirect comment…I definitely think some books mean more or less to you depending on the time in your life when you read them. Like friends, they have more or less of an impact depending on your place in life. Catcher in the Rye at 16 is an epiphany; at 36 is ridiculous. On the flip side, if I had read say Anne Tyler or Elizabeth Berg before I was an adult, I would not have "got" them either. It makes me NOT want to go back and reread books I love, actually, for fear I will be disappointed the second time around.

  2. I see what you mean about rereading a book you liked once & not finding it as good as it was years before. I loved Catcher in the Rye but mostly for its language. Holden was just "meh" for me, but I do think he cared for Phoebe & was trying to protect her from succumbing to everything he despised. I was wondering why you thought otherwise?

  3. I guess I see this just a little bit differently because I teach it every year as part of 11th grade summer reading. I actually feel sorry for Holden—he is dealing with the death of his brother, Allie, and trying to hold onto innocence for himself and his sister. His parents basically ignore him, and he is searching for a father figure of some sort. He thinks he finds it in Mr. Antolini and then the guy turns out to be some pedophile. And he is in love with a girl who goes out with his roommate. Such angst! This is why teenagers relate to it so much. I have to say I enjoy revisiting Holden each August!

  4. Bunny – Good point that it goes both ways…and so, perhaps a lesson learned from this re-reading. I wonder what The Secret History would mean to me now? Or Possession?

    T/L – I think that for me, Holden's protective view of Phoebe just wasn't enough. He isn't old enough to have given up on himself and so be purely sacrificial to "at least save Phoebe" which is what I think you have to believe for this to be his redeemable trait. For me there is a part of this view that is hypocritical – unless you buy into that Phoebe is worth saving but he isn't. He is still very inexperienced in the world – despite all his bravado about women, he's still a virgin & he freaks out when he has he opportunity with the young prostitute – someone who really shouldn't be threatening to him b/c of her age & inexperience. That said, read my comment to Robin – Holden is still worthy of getting to know.

    Robin – I do think you've got a point. A couple of the teachers in my book group who either still teach this or have recently taught it are much more forgiving. I think they are more apt to see its redeeming qualities in light of how easily their students can relate. So, I guess I should qualify my warning to exclude those adults who still carry the nobel banner of influencing a younger generation's view of literature. And that said, I will absolutely encourage my teen (when I have one) to read Catcher. Good or bad, Holden is a character worth being exposed to.

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