One of my least favorite books as a teenager was The Catcher in the Rye; I read it at least three times, convinced that at some point, I would understand why this was the great American novel I kept reading about, the one that everybody loved so much. And I hated it! I thought Holden was so whiny, and I just couldn’t understand what was going on with him, why he kept getting kicked out of school and wandering around being slightly creepy in New York City. I thought he was boring, and that the whole book was stupid.
Now, of course, I look forward to teaching the book every year, and it’s consistently the most popular book in the ninth grade curriculum at my school. The students who struggle with reading finally feel like they can understand a book, and often tell me that they found themselves reading ahead without knowing it. The capable readers enjoy trying to puzzle out what Holden is and isn’t telling us, why he’s such an unreliable narrator and how that affects our knowledge of events and characters. Every year I have students saying they have crushes on Holden, and every year, I have students saying they really identify with him, that he speaks a lot of feelings they haven’t been able to say. Sometimes it’s students I had pegged early on as probable Holden-fans, and sometimes, it’s the girl I least expect, the polar opposite of Holden, who comes to me after class one day and says, “I totally get him because we are so much alike!
In some ways, I think this is because, dated slang aside, Holden remains a classic teenager, one with lots to say but who struggles with how to say it, one who lies without even knowing why he’s done it, and one who is torn between wanting to remain a child while being drawn inexorably towards adulthood. He’s an outsider when he should be an insider, a sensitive person in a world full of phonies, someone who longs to be understood but manages to alienate those who try to connect with him: teenage stuff, for sure. But then, as an adult, I found myself much more empathetic with Holden than I could manage to be as a teenager. I think being totally unfamiliar with his world of privilege was one obstacle, though that may say more about me than the book itself, and I found the stream-of-consciousness style and unresolved ending a little off-putting as well.
Teachers often like to shuffle their curricula when they’ve been teaching a text for so long that it loses any appeal, and I get that; after reading hundreds or thousands of essays on the significance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, it’s understandable for Othello to lose some of its magic. But at this point in my career, I can’t imagine saying goodbye to Holden.
- Is Catcher in the Rye an assassination trigger? (atomicpoet.wordpress.com)
- Catcher in The Rye: Holden’s Toughness and Confidence (athingforcars.com)
- Catcher in the Rye (exowords.wordpress.com)
- chasitymoody’s #CBR4 review #3 – The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (cannonballread4.wordpress.com)
- The Cather in the Rye, Illustrated (3quarksdaily.com)