February 17, 2010

Catcher, Revisited

Back in the ninth grade, my English teacher took a box from a cabinet, hauled it around and from it removed a slim, yellow-covered paperback book, placing one on each of our desks. The title was Catcher In The Rye. Because I really had no concept of what rye was, I just figured it was about baseball which was okay as far as reading assignments go but why couldn't it have been about hair metal? I later learned that it was not about baseball, that it wasn't even really about rye (I figured that out eventually) and I was one of millions of kids to be handed the book and forced to read it. Unlike 99% of the other stuff I was forced to read in school, Catcher used real language and came up with a main character I could at least partially identify with. And of course all of us tittered when, in the book's home stretch we saw fuck you right there in black and white.

When Salinger died a few weeks ago, I figured it was about time to re-read Catcher. Instead of the cheap, yellow paperback, I picked up the reissued hardback I bought for Beth a few years ago (she loves Salinger). And I figured out why it's still such a well thought of book and a staple in high school classrooms across the country: it's a good book.

What makes Catcher compelling more than half a century later? I can't be 100% sure but I suppose it has something to do with the fact that, while the language has become dated as has the portrait of New York City, the story itself is very much current. It is at its core the story of a kid on the cusp of maturity who has no idea what to think about the world, who is obviously dealing (or not dealing) with the tragic loss of his brother and is trying to sort out exactly who he his with mixed results. The novel is possibly best summarized by the following from the wise yet creepy Mr. Antolini:

This fall I think you're riding for - it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment simply couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started.

Catcher also plays right into English teachers' hands. It's got boatloads of symbolism, little mysteries that, if figured out, enhance the story and give you a slightly better understanding of Holden. The narrator is unreliable. Action significant to the character happens just outside the scope of the narration, just offstage. Combined with Salinger's eventual hermitdom and his reluctance to fully explain Holden and Catcher, English teachers salivated to fill the gap.

I liked Catcher then and I like it now. What my 37 year old self sees, though, is vastly different than what my 15 year old self read. Instead of an anti-hero, I see an immature jerk, too quick to lump everyone into the same bucket of phonies, unwilling to take responsibility for himself, and unable to see true good in anyone other than his little sister. And instead of a coming of age tale, I see a story in which our hero learns precisely nothing; we leave him as we met him. At the story's conclusion, Holden hasn't learned a thing.

There's a paragraph, again from Mr. Antolini a page after the quote above that I think sums up Salinger quite nicely. And I'd like to think that Salinger wasn't just writing from Mr. Antolini's point of view or Holden's but his own.

Among other things you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

I'm not sure I see exactly what causes people smarter than I to call it one of the greatest books ever written. Those lists are usually comprised of fifty year old novels and fail to recognize some more recent examples of literary showmanship. In that respect, I think it's a bit overrated. But Catcher endures.

In your opinion what books deserve to be classics but aren't? And which classics do you just not get?

Posted by Chris at February 17, 2010 6:39 AM

Classics that aren't that should be: I can't think of any specifics, but I think that there is a lot of science fiction that gets short shrift. But then again, I'm a little biased!

Classics that are that I don't get: anything by Thomas Hardy, esp. Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Holy cow, that was assigned summer reading before my junior year and it nearly killed me!

Posted by: Elizabeth at February 17, 2010 8:32 AM

In the Sci-Fi realm, I have forced myself to read Stranger in a Stranger Land 3 times, and I still can't understand why everybody thinks it is Heinlein's greatest work.

I recently checked out The Electric Kool Aid Test by Tom Wolfe after multiple Internet sources convinced me it was the one true book I needed to read if I wanted to understand the 60s. I didn't get half way though it before I gave up on it, and I have come to terms with the realization that I will never understand the 60s.

Posted by: COD at February 17, 2010 8:46 AM

Deserve to be classics? I'd have to give that more thought.
But one that is regarded as a classic; Great Expectations...I'm not a fan of Dickens anyway so I may be slightly biased but I really think that book just blows.

Posted by: fauve at February 17, 2010 9:02 AM

I've been revisiting a lot of books I had to read in high school, and trying to read some "classics" I missed (I listen to them -- I have a lot of time to kill at work while I'm typing.). I bailed on Kerouac, but I was surprised how much I liked Hemingway. I'm trying to steer away from the kinds of things I know I'll like: Austen, Dickens, etc.

I reread Catcher a few years ago, and had a lot of the same impressions as you did -- Holden looks a lot different from the perspective of a parent than he does from that of a teenager.

Posted by: Julie at February 17, 2010 9:12 AM

I really liked that 2nd quote. It's been so many years since I read Catcher In The Rye, so I barely remember it. I never understood why Lord of the Flies is considered a classic. I've always been a fan of Jonathan Livingston Seagull though it's been years since I've read it. I also liked Tuck Everlasting.

Posted by: Rose at February 17, 2010 9:18 AM

So many times Chris you are right on the money -its like you live in my brain! I have never seen the big deal about Catcher. Even when I read it at 15 it struck me as overrated claptrap. I do think that part of it is a gender thing. Many women I have talked to about the book feel the same way. Its like when I reread "On the Road" and realized just how unsympathetic, immature, and misogynistic Kerouac really is.
I really think that eventually "Catcher" will be seen as a product of its time.

Thanks for your thoughts as always!

Posted by: Amy at February 17, 2010 9:19 AM

Either of the two novels by David James Duncan.

The Brothers K
The River Why

Admittedly, I am probably a bit biased in my view of river why as we are a fishing family, so I get it in ways that some may not.

But, either is worth your time (and K takes a bit of time - it's long).

Posted by: K at February 17, 2010 9:45 AM

I'm a fan of the classics. Not that I could intelligently discuss why they are classics, but I enjoy most of them. It's been a huge struggle for me to read more modern stuff, which I mostly think blows.

Classics I just don't get include "Catch-22" which I "get" but it seemed like it was 100 pages too long. I quit reading after I felt the beaten horse was really dead. I tried to read "Moby Dick" and just couldn't get there. Maybe the story was engaging. I'll have to give it another go. I mean, I'm someone for whom old English dialects are not a problem. Shakespeare reads like any other words to me, but my husband can not puzzle him out, so go figure.

Anyhoo, "Catcher"...I don't know. I've never identified with Holden. I don't think phoniness is limited to adults and I never have. I've never wanted to rebel. I figured someday I'd be 18 and I could blow them off. I'll probably read it again just to be sure, but I think I'll hate the book if I read it again.

Posted by: Brooke at February 17, 2010 12:27 PM

I never got why Catch-22 was a classic. I still don't. :/

Posted by: Amy at February 17, 2010 1:21 PM

Ulysses is unreadable. Period.

I think A Prayer For Owen Meany deserves more attention than it gets. It would be a great read for high school kids, too, as it has as its main character someone perpetually sold short in ability and stature, but whose character sets him apart from everyone else in the book right up until the end when he does something so selfless and heroic that it makes everyone else reevaluate their own ideals.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at February 17, 2010 1:34 PM

Have you seen the article in the NYTimes about the letters that will be on display? I think that the details that are coming out about Salinger are terribly interesting. He seems to have wanted to hide so much.

I teach high school English and am constantly reading classics over and over-- my current favorite is Invisible Man by Ellison-- I love the "jazz" in his writing...the words just move right...the classic I loathe, Moby Dick--

Posted by: jen at February 17, 2010 2:41 PM

I do not like Charles Dickens. I do not like him in a thicket. I do not like him on a biscuit!!
However, I do like John Steinbeck and lots of people find him quite dry and rambling ;-)

And though I think I understand why 'The Scarlet Letter' is a classic, try as I might I couldn't force myself past the first 3 pages.

Posted by: Karen at February 17, 2010 4:19 PM

Strangely enough, I've never actually read it. Nor have I read a lot of classics. I should do some sort of research into which classics are the most enjoyable to read - or you can tell me what your poll decides upon heh.

Posted by: Heather at February 17, 2010 4:36 PM

Is it fair to say this about a book you've never read? Because if so, yeah, Catcher in the Rye. I made it through about three chapters (as an adult--never picked it up as a teen) and just wanted to smack the little jerk.

Posted by: Angela at February 17, 2010 9:20 PM

Oh, and I forgot--Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I listened to a couple of friends go on and on and on about it and picked it up, expecting something extraordinary... not so much.

And did I mention that I couldn't even FINISH One Hundred Years of Solitude? I was all "Juan WHO? WHICH ONE?????" I quit it with less than a hundred pages to go because I just couldn't summon up the effort to care that much.

Posted by: Angela at February 17, 2010 9:23 PM

Oh, and I forgot--Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I listened to a couple of friends go on and on and on about it and picked it up, expecting something extraordinary... not so much.

And did I mention that I couldn't even FINISH One Hundred Years of Solitude? I was all "Jose (wasn't it Jose?) WHO? WHICH ONE?????" I quit it with less than a hundred pages to go because I just couldn't summon up the effort to care that much.

Posted by: Angela at February 17, 2010 9:24 PM

I revisited To Kill a Mockingbird several years ago and liked it much better than when it was required reading in high school.

Although I haven't re-read it, I didn't have much interest in reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school. I think it was because it was such a depressing book. I don't even remember if I read all of it or relied on Cliff Notes for the test...it was that unmemorable.

Posted by: Mary at February 18, 2010 2:09 AM

I was wondering if you were going to write about Salinger eventually.

I never liked Holden, not now and not when I read Catcher at 15. I, like you, thought he was an immature jerk and have never been able to see why so many people identified with him. I didn't identify with him. But I adored Salinger's writing, his voice and his ability to write like no one else. I can only imagine what kind of stuff is squirreled away in Salinger's house right now and when (or if) we'll ever be able to see it.

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