Let’s Talk Books – The Catcher in the Rye

Yup. We’re talking about it.

However, I don’t really want to go too into analyzing the book in this post. Actually, I wanted to talk about the love and hate surrounding Catcher in the Rye, and there’s certainly a lot of it.

So I read Catcher in the Rye for my sophomore English class in high school. High school was a pretty strange time for me; I’d gotten too frustrated reading books on my own because I never seemed to grasp what my teachers wanted me to take from them. It had turned me off of reading for a long time, and the only stuff I actually read a lot of was manga. I didn’t rediscover my love of reading until after high school, but that’s besides the point. All that being said, I remember Catcher in the Rye being one of the required readings I enjoyed, although I honestly don’t remember why. It wasn’t like I read this during high school and fell in love with Holden Caulfield or anything, which happens to be one of the things haters of the book hold against the fans. I’m fairly certain I forgot everything about the book shortly after finishing it.

I didn’t pick it up again until last year. I was 25 and I loved it. It had been on my to-revisit list for a long time, I finally found my copy, I read it, and I loved it. I was surprised by how much I loved it. There’s usually a decent amount of distance between me and any work of literature from this time period, but I was shocked at how well it held up for me. From a writer’s point of view, I find it really impressive that a book written so long ago has a train-of-thought narrative style that feels not exactly modern, but familiar enough for me to find extremely likeable.

For me.

Look, I’ll admit it right now, as much as I love Catcher in the Rye, I get why it’s not for everyone. I can see why people hate Holden Caulfield. I can get why they don’t like the train-of-thought narration. I’ve tried this style of narration before for some of my writing assignments in fiction workshops, and it was very, very hit or miss. Whether or not it’s done well seems to be irrelevant; I honestly think this writing style is something people either love or don’t, and I’ll bet if you asked the fans and haters of this book what they thought of the train-of-thought style the novel uses, they’ll love and hate it, respectively.

I can understand why they think it’s overrated. To be extremely blunt, nothing “happens.” This is one of the major complaints people have about the book, and I guess in the literal sense they’re right. Holden gets kicked out of school, he dicks around and complains for 200+ pages, and the book ends. In the sense of literal things happening, nothing much does happen.

The thing is, this is a book that’s more about the observations the narrator is making rather than the physical things that are happening in the plot. I can see Holden desperately trying to connect with other people on the spur of the moment and getting mad when they don’t turn out like he hoped they would. I can see Holden struggling to accept how the adult world is filled with people that constantly need to show off to others to obtain their self-worth. I can see Holden missing the innocence of childhood and trying to avoid the inevitable fact that he not only will become one of those “phony” people he hates so much, but is actually in the middle of that change.

(And as a side note, another common complaint about Catcher in the Rye is that Holden is a hypocrite and does many of the things he hates other people do. Yeah. He does. That’s the point. I honestly thought that was fairly obvious, but it’s something that seems to fly over a lot of the criticizers’ heads. Holden is a teenager. His beliefs and his actions aren’t always supposed to be the same. That’s not how teenagers tend to work. And if that’s not enough, Holden does flat out tell the readers that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” (22) He establishes his potential as an unreliable narrator pretty early in the book. When people hate him because of these things when his character is intentionally built around these flaws, it kind of makes me feel like they’re missing the point. Sorry for the rant, I just wanted to get that out of my system.)

I like stories that are more about the observations and ability to connect with readers that have similar thoughts. I’m not saying plot isn’t important, but after reading and writing short stories for my fiction workshops during college, I’ve learned to appreciate this aspect to storytelling. It’s not like Catcher in the Rye is the only book to do this. Hell, it’s not like books are the only thing to do this. Movies do this, too. Clerks is a pretty good example of not a lot happening in the plot but still being able to show something through character interactions and observations. But literature and films aren’t the same, and I guess it’s not completely fair to try comparing the two. I think the point I’m trying to make is, some people need a beginning. They need people physically going places and physically doing things, and they need to be more interesting than everyday events. Some people need a bad guy. Some people need a romantic interest. And then other people need characters to relate to. To have a story make a comment or observation about real life that makes the reader feel like they’re not alone. Different people come to books (and all forms of media) for different reasons, and I think Catcher in the Rye is one of those books that only caters to a certain type of audience.

What about Holden Caulfield? Well, like the way the story is presented, people either seem to love or hate him. A lot of what I said about appreciating the writing style can be applied to appreciating the main character, so I don’t think I need to go over him too much in that regard. What I do want to try to talk about is why Holden (and I guess to an extent, the book, although the book and Holden are so closely linked they may as well be one entity) is obsessed over, for better or worse.

Liking or hating Holden Caulfield also seems to be closely linked to the reader’s personality and tastes. People like characters. People don’t like characters. They finish the book and move on.

Not Holden. Like the characters in Twilight, people hear someone talking about them and come rushing over, either adding praise or criticism. Is it something in the hype? Catcher in the Rye is a pretty popular book, I guess. Everyone knows it and most people have read it at least once. But it’s old. And yeah, it’s talked about a decent amount in literature circles, but it’s not like there’s a ton of posters and t-shirts waiting in a bookstore for a herd of fans to pick up (you need to go online for that). If you didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, and you heard great things about it beforehand, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it was at least a little hyped up.

But what about other popular classics? 1984? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Lord of the Flies? Anything by Shakespeare? There’s a ton of stuff just as popular as Catcher in the Rye, and while it gets its fair share of hate as much as love, it never seems nearly as bipolar as the love and hate this book receives. It’s almost like you have to dedicate yourself to loving or hating it.

So is there something else? Well… all right, hear me out. Let’s say you know someone who has a lot of trouble expressing themselves. This person is very lost in life and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They want to do something, there’s a definite drive there, but they don’t know what it is and they wear themselves out trying to think of it. They have a lot to say about a lot of things, and despite needing to get it off their chest and needing someone to listen, understand, and try to support them through life, it can come off as very whiny.

Sound familiar? Are you one of these people? Were you one of these people? Do you know someone like this? Do they frustrate you? Is the situation frustrating because you want to help them but can’t, and you get mad at them? Do they simply annoy you?

Holden Caulfield is one of the most real characters I’ve come across, for better or worse. Holden has serious emotional issues. He needs help. It’s hard to see for a lot of people because it comes off as whining. But as my regular readers may be aware of, I write a lot of posts about mental health and trying to cope with things. I can’t help but feel the ability to understand, tolerate, and deal with mental health is a big factor in dealing with Holden. A lot of people complain that the only reason fans of Holden Caulfield like him so much is because they are him.

You know what? Yeah. We are. Not all of us have our shit together. Not all of us have found our place. Not all of us can communicate with other people the way we’d like. Not all of us have found somebody. A lot of us are lonely and scared and angry and need to know we’re not the only people in the world like that. Looking at Holden at a personal level, this is why we love him. And I don’t think that’s something we should be ashamed of. Should we aim to be like him? No. Should we aim to recite his word as law? No. That’s not the point of Holden, or any flawed character for that matter. He’s a mirror that shows some parts of our lives, whether it’s past or present, and we take comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

Communicating with many people that hate Catcher in the Rye is like communicating with people that either don’t have a tolerance for people with depression and other mental health issues, or don’t understand them.

At least for me.

I don’t want to generalize, but if I’m going by my personal interactions with people that hate Holden, this seems to be a recurring theme. Maybe this is why I felt the need to try understanding why people hate or love this book so much, and the need to voice my own opinions about that love and hate. I reread this book last week, and I honestly couldn’t help but notice the similarities between how people talk about Catcher in the Rye and how people deal with mental health. I don’t want to criticize anyone by saying that, or assume anything, or make any kind of hurtful statement to those that genuinely don’t like the book. But the way people almost unprovocatively lash out at Catcher in the Rye makes me feel like they have some personal issue with someone like Holden Caulfield.

Or maybe not. Who knows? Maybe they really just hated the book and that was that, and I’m looking too much into other people’s reactions. :p

At any rate, I hope this made some sense. It’s a little hard for me to put my thoughts about all this together, and I’m sorry if it turned into a bit of a jumbled mess. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Catcher in the Rye, whether you loved or hated your last read, try it again. I think this is going to be one of those books that affects people in different ways at different times in life.

Info for my edition of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • Published 2001 by Back Bay Books
  • Paperback, 277 pages
  • ISBN 9-780316-769174
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