Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Book: The Catcher in the Rye

Because we love reading and (apparently) have a lot more free time than we thought, my first book club formed a splinter group where we could read books that were longer and more complex. It eventually became a gathering where you would read the books you always wanted to / thought you should read; kind of like high school English except this time we’re the ones who get to choose the curriculum. I think that the books that high school students are given to read are usually “classics” that are over the heads of young people with little life experience, like The Great Gatsby (which I hated and only think of re-reading twelve years later) or Brave New World (which I loved but upon re-reading realized I missed the point). Despite the shortcomings of the works I read in high school, I liked English because it exposed me to works I wouldn’t have sought out on my own, and because I basically knew how to read and what to read for. (I have since then lost that, but am trying to get it back.)

Most people I know that didn’t like high school English hated it because they were simply taught to look and analyze the plot, themes, and characters of the specific books and not how to apply those skills to reading in general. I mean, I hated Pride & Prejudice so much I didn’t bother reading it and passed the exam by reading the study questions - but then I realized that most students thought the study questions were the beginning and the end of English class, as opposed to just crutches. That means that most high school English students are stuck reading books that they don’t understand and are taught that what they are supposed to get out of a book are a series of superficial details. Which is why, I thought, that when they read a book like The Catcher in the Rye with characters and situations they’re supposed to be able to identify with, they still don’t like it: they don’t know how to read it.

Not a single person I’ve talked to who’d read The Catcher in the Rye for class has liked it. (That’s only about 5 people, but not many of my friends actually had to read it for class after all.) I thought it was because of the cold, surgical way they read books back then; after all, this is a famous book, beloved by millions of disaffected youths since it was first published. But after reading it for the first time a few weeks ago, I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the reason at all.

Salinger apparently hates people quoting the book, and probably doesn’t like much discussion of the book at all. I’ll keep this short then, partly out of deference to the man, and partly because I don’t really think I need to say much; if you want to read about The Catcher in the Rye, there are plenty of resources out there for you. The book deals with a week in the life of prep-school flunk-out and angry adolescent Holden Caulfield just before Christmas 1949. My general impressions of the book are that it’s a well-written book that tackles a theme that was probably very dangerous and different at the time, but I didn’t really get much out of it.

The most important part of the novel is the main character; if you love Holden, you'll love the book and vice versa. My feelings on the novel mirror my feelings on Holden: I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t really like him either. He's pulled around by two sets of competing desires: the desire to grow up versus the desire to remain the same, and the desire to be different versus the desire to fit in. These are problems that people deal with their entire lives, but they’re particularly important in adolescence. The way Holden deals with them make for a number of interesting vignettes. My favourite part of the book is the scene in the hotel room with the prostitute. The image of a fifteen-year-old acting like a proper gentleman (and yet still worldly) around a whore was both absurd and realistic. I can think of a number of times in my life where I’ve tried to act how I think an “adult” would act in a situation, and failing miserably. Holden also doesn’t like “phonies”, which is interesting because most of the people who are phonies (i.e. everyone in the book except for his little sister) are either people that are handling the transition to adulthood better than him, or fit in to society better than him. Holden, with his red hunting cap and his reluctance to let go of his childhood, just can’t reconcile his desires with what he sees; after all, since everyone feel like he does on the inside, how could they possibly act like they don’t?

Most of the people who love this book likely read it when they were teens, and the fact that I’m 27 might distance me from the subject matter, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I really feel that at the time the book was written, and even in the 60s and early 70s, it was much easier to identify with. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, and it doesn’t age gracefully: Holden’s problems, motivations, and turns of phrase seem dated to this reader, stuck in the early 21st Century. If looked at like a snapshot of a time and place, it reads a little better, but I don’t think The Catcher in the Rye will be a “classic” book for much longer than another 20 or 30 years, when all the students who hated it when they read it in school get to teach the classes and make up the curriculum. Then again, maybe I just read it at the wrong time. Maybe in another few years, upon re-reading, it’ll be better. But I really think the critical period, if there really was such a thing, has passed. Any thoughts?


Jago said...

I wasn't a person who had to read it in school. I decided to read it for fun about five years back, and I absolutely despised it, all thanks to whiny-ass Holden Caulfield.

Now, maybe it's just because I've never really had a period of rebellion in my life, but I found Holden to be everything I despised about teens: He's posturing, elitist, and rebellious for no real good reason.

Now maybe the fact that I detested Holden made me not like the book. Any time I hold someone in that much contempt, I'll be prejudiced against them.

But I gave the book a shot, learned nothing for it, other than the author writes one jerkassed twit, and put it down at the end, glad I had read it for the sake of reading it, I guess, and wanting never to care about Holden ever again.

Justice said...

Wow. I don't often see someone react with that kind of vitriol to a book author!!


Silly Dan said...

Interesting, Jago. I never had a stereotypical period of rebelliousness either, and I was forced to read Catcher just as Dev was, but I enjoyed the book and didn't hate Caulfield at all. I actually sympathized with his sense that the world was not as it should be, while at the same time envying his ability to hang out in New York unsupervised for a weekend.

Mind you, if I read it again now that I'm 30, I might just mutter, "Oh, shut up, go back to school, and get your wealthy parents to pay for professional help, you pretentious little wanker."

Red-headed Dynamo said...

You know, its funny. I read it when I was sixteen and LOVED it. I read it over again from the beginning right after finishing it and devoured it just as quickly--though it is a quick read.

One of my friends said that you have to read it before you turn 18 and I think it's true. There's so much about it that I loved just because it affected me on a non-verbal, inarticulate level. Reading that book actually fuelled a lot of my (pitiful) teenage rebellion and I think helped me choose the carreer path I'm on now, even though it resulted in a screaming match with my parents over three days.

But the funny thing? I don't actually remember much of the book anymore. I remember the scene you mention Doc, and I think a party with a communist(?). I remember thinking that Basketball Diaries had (somehow, even though it's autobiographical) ripped off Catcher.

Maybe I should read it again, but I don't know if I revisit it, it will be the same book.