Let me tell you of a life-changing event I had during high school when, during English class, I stumbled into the one book that stuck with me forever. I’ll start by asking you two questions.
One, what books were you tasked to read throughout high school English? I suspect that whatever one had read may vary depending on the class or school they learned it from. But when I went to school in Ridgway, Colorado, my class and I were introduced to various assigned books to read. They included Shakespeare classics like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Macbeth’, as well as such classics as ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘The House on Mango Street’, ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Animal Farm’...even ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, of all books, was part of our reading curriculum.
But while we’re still on that subject, here’s my second question: when or how did you ever come across that one book that spoke to you no matter how you found it? I ask you that question because, throughout high school English, one of our other required reading assignments was to read JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. The first time I read this, I found myself smitten by its sophisticated attitude, yet put off a bit by its course language. I glided through this book knowing that this was just one of my English reading assignments. I thought nothing of the book outside of that. However, once my assignments concerning that book were behind me, and I looked back on it since then, its message, characters, atmosphere, and even symbolism continued to reverberate within me. So, what do I think of the book now, after all these years?
Unless you read this book before in high school, like I did, let me summarize the story for you. If you can get through its coarse language and adult material, you’ll see that the story is about a teenager named Holden Caulfield. It was Christmas 1949, and before then, he got kicked out of at least two colleges before settling in Pencey Prep. Regrettably, he’s been kicked out of this one, too, having flunked all but one of his college courses; the only one he aced was English.
The story started with Holden as he spent his last few days at Pencey Prep chewing the fat with his hallmates, Robert Ackley and Ward Stradlater. When Holden wasn’t busy complaining about his hallmates’ more flawed aspects, he got set to depart Pencey Prep and head out, even though he was technically not supposed to come home until Wednesday. One thing Holden had to do before he left Pencey Prep was visit his old History teacher, Spencer, and say goodbye to him.
He didn’t want his parents to know that he got expelled from Pencey Prep early before Wednesday. And he wanted to make them think he was coming home on that date as if nothing wrong ever happened to him. So, once he set foot out of Pencey Prep forever, from then on, he decided to spend the rest of his free time rummaging through the streets of New York City. Among his activities were:
Witnessing a man trying on women’s lingerie.
Witnessing a couple playing sex games, one of which include them both wolfing down water (or an alcoholic beverage) and then spitting it into each other’s faces (Holden wondered why such a pretty face – he meant that of the lady – had to be lathered like this).
Watching the parents quibbling, talking, and laughing while their child sang “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” and wandered in and out of the sidewalk with the speeding cars beside them.
Wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon in the park froze; the taxi driver he asked about it retorted by asking him how the fish operated underwater when the water froze.
Watching a black pianist perform on stage and feeling frustrated about how show-offy stars like him always got the spotlight with his talents while also seeing an old friend, Lillian Simmons, who came with her boyfriend from the Navy.
Meeting three ladies from Seattle at the Lavender Club and inviting them to dance with him despite his unorderly demeanor and thinking they were slightly dimwitted.
Meeting up with his friend from Elkton Hills, Carl Luce, who engaged himself with Asian philosophy.
Meeting up with his sister, Phoebe, at their apartment in the middle of the night, and then seeing Mr. and Mrs. Antolini at theirs.
Having breakfast with two passerby nuns who were heading to the nearest high school at Grand Central Station.
Buying a record of an old song that Phoebe liked as a Christmas gift, only to drop and break it in the park by accident.
Noticing, and taking umbrage with, some F-bombs written or scratched onto the walls, whether it was in Phoebe’s school or at the Museum of Natural History.
Showing two boys around the museum to the mummies while waiting for Phoebe to stop by from school.
As Holden engaged in many activities and met plenty of people, he also assessed them and mentally stripped them down based on what he described as phoniness or on whoever he saw as phonies. With each new experience he encountered, he began questioning the liabilities and legitimacies of the adult world while confronting problems of his own on his own. Was he cut out for the grown-up world that awaited him, especially if that was all that awaited him?
I could go on and on about what I love so much about this book. But I’ll see if I can narrow it down to the most prominent elements of the book that drew me back to it. Every time I launched in a book and read it, I felt like I experienced the events of the book through the eyes of another consciousness, most likely that of the protagonist, as I witnessed it with them. Each experience was unique and fascinating, but it was generally the same: it’s equivalent to nothing more than diving into another person’s mindset and getting to know them more. However, with Holden Caulfield, diving into his mindset felt equivalent to gazing at myself in the mirror.
Many of Holden’s experiences and opinions on the activities and people he saw on his odyssey, I recall encountering plenty of them like that before. And it’s not just in high school, college, or real life, but practically throughout my life. I remember seeing some frat boys in college whose antics and behavior got under my nerves, similar to how Holden felt about Ackley or Stradlater. Holden felt uncomfortable with Ackley’s tendency to pop his many pimples. He felt uncomfortable with Stradlater’s brash attitude and unwillingness to clean his shaver every time he went to the sink. I’ve known guys before who tended to be slightly irresponsible with their things, so I recall feeling whatever pain Holden felt, like what he felt in those experiences, in equal measure.
And once he headed to New York City, the many different people and situations he ran into were just a hodgepodge of inconsistencies and confusing personal tendencies. No matter who he saw, Holden always tended to pinpoint and complain about all the inadequacies and hypocrisies that may have been noticeable only to him and probably no one else. It’s these impulses from Holden that I could easily relate to, too. Holden wondered why these people did what they did when he knew there may have been something off with their habits, similar to how I wondered why some bad things happen the way they do and why some people can’t just resolve whatever problems come their way. So, though Holden felt flawed in his perspective and arguments, I can see why he perceived anything and anyone he saw the way he did all the time, to a point where I nearly sympathize with him and his gripes with life.
For example, Holden rested in a hotel when he ran into an elevator boy named Maurice. He offered Holden to have fun with a prostitute for $5 a shot or $15 up until noon. Holden went with the $5 option and was greeted by Sunny as she entered his room. But when she prepared to leave, Holden paid her his $5, only to be reminded by Sunny that it was $10, not $5. It confused Holden, but he still paid her what Maurice told him to pay her. Later, Maurice and Sunny confronted Holden in his room, demanding that he pay him the other half he still owed them. This confrontation was interesting because I was a little torn over whether Holden was wrong for not paying them the total amount or if Maurice was wrong for fabricating the prices between Holden and Sunny.
However, throughout the book, some of Holden’s other actions and contemplations inevitably made me wonder if he was any better than everyone else. He invited his old ex-girlfriend, Sally Hayes, on a date with him for the afternoon, where they watched a movie and went ice-skating together at the Radio City Hill. Then, Holden immediately proposed to Sally that they could both hightail it out into Vermont or Massachusetts with all the dough he had left and Sally on his side as they could get married and make a life for themselves. Sally quickly pointed out the fallacies of his propositions, thinking that he was slightly delusional when he was telling her that. Then, it all boiled down to an argument until Holden crossed the line by admitting she was “a pain in the ass.”
Then, later in the book, he thought about wanting to say goodbye to his sister, Phoebe, and hightailing it out west where he would have had a cabin all his own and settled there for the remainder of his days; no school outside of a job at a gas station and pretending to be deaf-mute.
To me, Holden’s judgmental nature when he rebuked anything and everyone he saw that got under his skin may have contributed to how Holden was no stranger to inconsistencies or hypocrisy himself, as if he was no different from everyone else in terms of phoniness. Now, this aspect of Holden’s character stuck out to me because I feel like this played a part in everyone’s collective admiration – idolization, perhaps – of Holden’s character despite his significant flaws and existential crisis. They related to him this way because everyone went through what he did once in their lives before. And Holden was no different from the rest of us. Even Mr. Antolini, his English teacher from Elkton Hills, reminded him that he wasn’t the only one going through life with problems and questions of his own. As he quoted from Wilhelm Stekel:
The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
With this quotation in mind, it felt as if Mr. Antolini was speaking for the audience about what everyone might have thought about Holden and told Holden what the audience would have wanted to tell him in person if they could have. That’s what everyone can relate to Holden over; the more insecure, confused, and constantly frustrated part of us that looks at the real world with more analytical yet potentially naïve and conflicted opinions. And, like Holden, this method of seeing things would’ve left us idolizing the parts of the world where we feel safe while criticizing those that make us feel less comfortable.
Here’s another thing for me to note regarding the novel’s setting. The book took place in New York City around Christmas time, but there’s something about how quiet, low-key, down-to-earth, and melancholy it felt, as shown to us from Holden through his point of view, that seemed to resonate with me in a concise but powerful way. In a sense, it also tied into the general experience anyone reading this book may have experienced in their lives.
However, Holden had blatantly shown in some parts of the book that he still had his tender moments, too, and that he was openly frightened about some of the more confusing or harrowing elements in life that he dreaded. In one instance, Phoebe and Holden were arguing amongst themselves in DB’s bedroom, and in the heat of the moment, Phoebe asked him the one question that I feel sums up Holden’s character altogether:
Name one thing.
As in, was there any one thing that Holden liked in life? Well, there was plenty. For starters, it wasn’t just Holden and Phoebe. They also had an older brother named DB, who ventured out into Hollywood to engage in screenwriting at the time of Holden’s recollection. And because DB was away, Phoebe was allowed to sleep in his bed in his room. And Holden originally had a younger brother – and Phoebe’s older brother – named Allie, who he did like. He used to play baseball games, and whenever he was bored, he wrote poems that he loved and memorized on his baseball mitt in green ink. Holden still held onto that mitt. But unfortunately, Allie died of leukemia when he was 13 years old.
There were also times when Holden lost himself when he was most emotional. For instance, when he heard about Allie’s death, Holden smashed all the windows in the garage with his bare hands. Originally, he was going to smash the station wagon’s windows, too, but his hands were too broken and bloodied to make it happen. He didn’t even attend Allie’s funeral because he was still in the hospital after breaking his hands. Phoebe didn’t go, either, but only because their mother thought she was too young to go.
I must also admit that I found Holden and Phoebe’s relationship quite touching. You have one of the most reckless and critical teenagers confiding with his sister, a young yet bright and astonishingly intelligent little girl, about his problems, and the back-and-forth banter would’ve engaged you with their clash of worldviews. I especially found this touching because Holden had deep thoughts about being the catcher in the rye, where he would’ve fulfilled his duties as the children’s guardian and kept them from falling off the edge of the rye field endlessly into an abyss beneath them. Phoebe was one example of the children he would’ve liked to protect. So, at the end of the book, when he let Phoebe out of school for the rest of the afternoon and let her ride on the carousel, he understood that children must be allowed to fall and learn from their mistakes sometime.
Come to think of it, this book left such an impact on me when I was in high school that even though I was only assigned to read the book, take notes and take quizzes on it as part of my English curriculum, the book’s messages and symbolism, as my assignments demonstrated to me, were such that somehow they burrowed their way inside me deep and resonated with me since then. So, I deliberately gave the book another go when I was tasked in college to handpick a pop culture icon worth writing an essay about. In this assignment, I had to demonstrate its history behind the scenes and how it made the subject make such a massive breakthrough. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was my choice for those reasons.
I can tell you from this assignment that I did not discover in my first one that JD Salinger wrote ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ for about ten years, and Salinger’s life experiences inspired good chunks of the story. So, you can say that JD Salinger saw nothing but himself in Holden, almost like Holden was him. Sure, everything that Holden experienced in the story didn’t align with what JD Salinger experienced in his lifetime. Still, the autobiographical ties between them were fascinating to dig through and write an essay on, nonetheless.
If you are interested in taking a peek at what I wrote about this book in high school and college, please be my guest and see for yourself. Remember that the writing styles between these two and this review may be drastically different. This time, however? On my third outing with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’? I decided to read this book purely on my own because, simply put, the book left that deep an impression on me. When you look at how much of an effect it left on those who read it, whether it’s because they related to Holden in his struggles or if it’s because of its more questionable aspects, this book still left a mark in pop culture for what it told and meant to accomplish. It’s even more impressive that it did so at a time when any story containing this kind of subject matter, written or filmed, would have usually been frowned upon as being too sacrilegious.
Speaking of sacrilegious, I did catch onto the book’s more infamous reputation among certain acts of crime. For instance, Mark David Chapman held a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ when he approached former Beatles member John Lennon in his hotel room and shot him to death. Reports said that he slaughtered John Lennon because he felt inspired to do so, as if his murder was an act of vengeance against phoniness. Not only that, but ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ also inspired John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan during his presidency. That was because he, too, thought it inspired him to revolt against phoniness. Now, it’s events like this where I feel like anyone taking what they thought the book meant to heart and acting off on them might have misread it. But it’s not just them; around the time of the book’s publication in 1951, many people decried and dismissed this book for being too smutty and immature, immoral at worst. Needless to say, this book developed a pretty controversial reputation. Like me, those who read the book and understand its morals and message view it as such and hold it dear to our hearts. But those who read it only to misread or condemn it as something it isn’t may have given the book its reputation out of a warped intake of what it meant to say. Sometimes, a little reread is all it would take to see things from the book’s point of view more clearly.
Is it any wonder that this book is among the most popular books ever taught in high school today? The idea that some of JD Salinger’s life elements seeped their way into this book makes it feel more special and personal. On top of that, its more personable elements are why I believe so many people held it in such high esteem as they do these days and for many years. And consider me on the same bandwagon as everyone else. I deem this a classic and a masterpiece, and even though I’m more of a movie and TV and play guy and sometimes falter when it comes to reading books, I can say without a shred of a doubt that this is my all-time favorite book, hands-down.
The characters were identifiable. The circumstances were sometimes out of the ordinary. The existential ponderation implied within was irresistible to consider. The setting served as a perfect contradiction to what the main character went through. Holden’s dilemmas felt slightly scatterbrained yet no less compelling and attention-grabbing. And its themes of childhood versus adulthood made for a terrific backbone to strengthen and make powerful an already profound, intimate, personal, and contemplative novel.
That’s all I will tell you about my experiences with this book. Because now, I encourage you guys to follow suit and give it a whirl if you can. Your experiences with this may differ from mine, but that’s the idea of developing our own unique point of view and experience with this, am I right? Whether we will love or hate it, we may all leave it a potentially better person than before, depending on what you see in this book. In the meantime, do Holden proud and maintain your innocence as you prepare to enter adulthood. I still retain my optimism about life even as I approach it in its nastier circuits and elements. Sometimes I may be prone to run away from those ugly elements. But I should prefer to take it in as carefully as possible without letting it overshadow the more valuable, exciting things about life I expect to cherish. And you should, too.