The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: Book Review

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The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger Book Cover
Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Content Warning: Language, bullying, underage drinking/smoking, suicide, mental illness

My Synopsis:

Holden Caulfield has been expelled from many prestigious schools and this one is no different. He simply can’t be bothered to do homework he isn’t interested in. His expulsion from his current school is effective as of Christmas break so he decides to head home to New York City a few days early. He takes the money he’s stashed away, boards a late night train, and wanders around the city for a few days, making astute observances about behavior, social norms, and the loss of innocence along the way.

My Review:

I’ll be honest–I fully expected to dislike this book. I only decided to read it to see why it’s always on lists of banned/challenged books. You can’t even begin to imagine my surprise when I immediately clicked with Holden. Is he young and judgmental? Yes. But he’s also broken and feels the world deeply. He sees all the ways we hurt each other and the ways we prune our own personalities to fit in. He sees the “phoniness” and it bothers him. Why can’t we all just be who we are and accept each other? He loves that children aren’t tainted like this yet. They’re weird and unapologetic about it. When asked what he’d like to do with his life, he references a poem by Robert Burns and answers,

“What I have to do, I have to catch [the little kids] 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’d 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. I know it’s crazy.”

And that brings me to Holden’s voice. I could practically hear him speaking to me from the page. Salinger pulled off writing a character who sounds authentic, at least to me. Real people talk in circles, repeat ourselves, and use a handful of pet phrases over and over, especially when we’re trying to figure out how we feel about something. And that’s where Holden is in his life. He’s figuring out how he feels about becoming an adult and doesn’t think he particularly likes it.

The Catcher in the Rye reminded me a bit of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, simply because a main character doesn’t fit into his role in society and pays a price for that. I personally didn’t feel that Cuckoo has aged well with the rampant misogyny but I actually feel that Catcher is fairly timeless. Sure, times have changed but lots of people still relate to Holden’s questions, observances, and reservations.

And here’s one more quote that I’m including just because I relate to it:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Anything else I try to add is coming out more like a school essay so I’m going to stop here. I think this is a book that you simply have to read at the right time of life and that time will vary from person to person. Had I read this as a teen, I think I would have loathed Holden. But with some distance, some perspective on those difficult teenage years, and some empathy, I see where he’s coming from. Others will relate better when they’re closer to Holden’s age. This classic won’t appeal to all readers but if you’re interested, please do give it a chance. I’ve been pondering it and its messages for weeks now.

Banned Books Week:

Banned Books Week 2021

I don’t know about you, but when I think of banned books, this is the first title that comes to mind. The American Library Association has a list of challenges to this book that’s a couple of screens long. A quick glance through shows that they primarily boil down to the use of profanity and sexual situations. Were these people ever teenagers? I’m not going to claim that all teens curse by any means, but a lot of them sure do. And sex? Teens are curious and at least thinking about it. All of this adds to the authenticity to me. Choose what’s best for your own family, but you can’t dictate what you think is best for everyone around you.

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Reading Challenge:

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  1. First of all, thanks for referencing the poem. I re-read it very recently in Franny Billingsley’s Chime (a truly mesmerizing YA fantasy book that I recommend highly) — but I never realized the Burns link there.

    I can see why you drew the Gatsby / Cuckoo’s Nest connections. The loss of innocence/ naive idealism is such a bittersweet theme.

  2. I read this in high school so it’s been a really long time. I remember liking it, but not loving it. I wonder if I’d understand it more now?

  3. I know I read this one in high school, but I don’t remember what I thought of it. (I think I liked it? I at least didn’t loathe it.) Really all I remember about it was my sophomore year AP English teacher telling the class that he had planned to teach this book but couldn’t because it was banned, but that he was holding an after school book club to read and discuss it if any of us wanted to join him. I don’t think he was even allowed to give us extra credit for it. I didn’t know anything about it in advance. But lots of us heard “banned book” and decided to join the book club. (I suspect a lot of it was a “fight the system” kind of thing. But it worked.)

    I’ve been thinking about re-reading it as an adult. I’m not sure I want to overlay new memories on top of the old ones I have for this book, though. So I haven’t decided.

  4. I have read this book three times and it never has clicked with me, so I’m kind of envious that you could get into it! Last time I read it, I spent the whole time wanting to feed Holden a giant sandwich and make him sleep for a good long while. He’d feel much better after a shower, a sandwich, and a nap!

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