Friday, 9 March 2012

Catcher in the Rye

Well, despite a ridiculously crowded work schedule that has resulted in the least time I've ever had to read regularly, I'm nearly finished Catcher in the Rye. I have to confess that part of my initial reluctance to get going with it was due, probably, to the less than happy memories of studying it at school. However decades later, it's a very different reading experience.

It occurs to me that the mug of tea is probably singularly inappropriate, as Holden is as likely to drink tea as he is to find life engaging and amusing! However, lacking his preferred Scotch, my tipple through much of the book was tea.

My epiphany with the book came the day I was reading it in the living room one day when Sixteen was home. He's studying this book, remember, and appears to dislike it as intensely as I remember disliking it at his age, or a little less... He walked through the room while I was laughing at a particular passage - I can't remember which now, as I've laughed and chuckled all the way through reading it. He asked me what I was reading so I flipped it up to show him the cover and his jaw hit the floor - "and you're laughing???" I told him that as an adult, it was a very funny read, particularly an adult who has brought up boys and is living with one with a similar background to Holden's. He still didn't get it, so I told him to keep his copy and read it again when he had a sixteen year old boy of his own living in his house. He gave me a very dark look and exited.

The thing is, about that age group, and boys in particular - bearing in mind the three I've lived with and countless others I've taught, including my current student who is also studying this book - is that they know that they are the most interesting creatures in the universe... They know that everything they have to say is both important and witty. They know that anyone who is anyone should want to listen to them endlessly rabbiting on... The reality is, from an adult point of view, that their world view is usually very limited - because they are the centre of their own universe and the majority of their time is spent studying themselves. They study what they have to at school, but rarely take themselves beyond the bare minimum. They take themselves so deadly seriously. When they get together, they talk at each other about themselves. The advent of social media sites like Facebook means that those of us who count some of this group among our friends are privy to the most unbelieveable - at times - collective drivel.

J.D. Salinger portrays this, in the character of Holden - his opinions, his attitude, his 'blow the world, I know better' march through this phase of his life - absolutely accurately. There are just enough moments where he lets us, the reader, see Holden's vulnerabilities, his frailties, and his fears to allow us not dismiss him as a complete tosser, but as the boy he is, as all boys that age are.

My friend who requested a personal mention on this blog - and is now, by default getting another one - spoke of this book as one of many we were given at school about 'teenage angst'. In working through this book with my sixteen year old student, and having the odd casual conversation with Sixteen at home about it, I am seeing it more broadly than that. For starters, when it was published, the 'teenager' - as we understand them - didn't really exist. There were children, and then once children left school and entered the workforce or went to university, they were adults. Young adults, to be sure, but adults. There was no recognition of this period of teens that we now acknowledge, complete with a culture and a somewhat specialised set of issues. That being the case, what we have in this book is the embryonic young man struggling to meet the expectations of his parents, struggling to cope with the grief he still carries about his younger brother's death, and telling us about it via the stream of consciousness inane chatter that you have to plumb deeply to find the small gems of substance - just like today's sixteen year olds.

Interestingly, my student, who is a very different beastie to Sixteen, got it when we discussed this after he asked me how it was to read the book again as an adult. He has a knack for distancing himself from himself and looking at himself fairly objectively when called upon to do so. So, rather than another dark look when I gave him my thoughts about the portrayal of young men Salinger-style, I got a wry smile...


  1. Firstly, thanks for another oblique reference to myself in your most recent post. I'd never have envisaged ever reading a literary blog, let alone being mentioned in one.

    I did promise to reread CITR in my previous comment in these pages, but have been distracted by other things, including an interesting non-fiction book (my staple literary fodder) picked up at the airport (Blink by Malcolm Gadwell) and the urgent need to re-vist the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic "Princess of Mars" in advance of the release of the movie "John Carter". I still have CITR on my radar though, all the more so for the two sociological 'baits' planted, perhaps deliberately, in your analysis of Salinger's work.
    The assertion that teenagers were not a concept as we know it in 1951 when H Caulfield was strutting his stuff around Coney Island is something that needs challenge, as is the unfair characterisation of teenage boys (here's a tip, teenage boys don't "talk at each other about themselves" - they're usually a lot more interested in sports, cars and what happened in the backseat of someone else's car on the weekend)But to argue all that requires more time than I have (there's a 10 year old hovering about wanting to use the computer) and requires I have actually re-read the book. This is a debate that will have to wait for another day...

  2. Well, I've read it. I managed to find myself a free (pirated) download on the web, and tore through all 115 pages in a day. My usual strong moral stance on artist's royalties was swayed by knowing that old JDS wouldn't be benefiting from them anyway, and that he'd done quite well out of the education system over the past thirty or so years.

    Quite a read.In fact, I woke at around four this morning and lay awake for some time pondering some of the deeper aspects of the book, and why, as a teenager I seemed to have absolutely no insight at all into what really ailed HC. I must of thought he was just some sort of loser, with an attitude problem, rather than a deeply troubled young adult, with a severe mental illness. I really did.

    What kills me is that I find myself agreeing with Kaz's Sixteen - it's not a funny read at all. The mood is dark throughout, but gets darker still as HC spirals downward toward the Stygian breakdown that claims him in the books penultimate pages. No amount of his phony waffle about the minutiae of life (Ackley kid's zits, the ducks on the frozen pond, or tea drinkers) came close to bringing a smile to my face, though some of the cameos by the likes of Phoebe, the two Nuns, and even the Timpanist, suggested to me a ray of light trying to pierce the gloom - or at least a sense that there was something brighter 'out there'.

    I'm happy to say that it's a good book, but I'm not sure why many consider it to be a really good book. And I'm convinced that the book is wasted on teenagers. I reckon that you and I need to discuss it at length over a good, hearty bottle of red sometime. I really do.

  3. I'm lacking the wine, sadly, but I would like to respond regardless.

    I need to qualify my amusement in re-reading this book as being the somewhat wry, reactive humour that comes from having survived bringing up first two boys largely on my own, and finding myself landed with a third who is now sixteen. It's no so much that the book is funny - because it's not. It IS dark, and as bleak in many ways as I remember it from my first reading.

    However, the accuracy of the portrayal of the preoccupations of the average teenage boy did amuse me, if only for its consistency with the current generation. My own two are now 26 (27 in a matter of weeks) and almost 21, so I've experienced reasonable gaps between this period with each of the three. It's precisely the woffle, and the both random and insignificant nature (in a big picture sense) of that woffle that amused me - because I hear Sixteen woffling constantly at the same mundane level - to us and to his friends - as I heard my own two - and yet, to them, it's all SO important. The really important things, of course, are still beyond their comprehension, consumed as they are by their own sphere within the larger context of life.

    Dearly beloved is yet to read it - has said he will. I'm interested to hear what he has to say, because I suspect there may be some significant gender differences in reaction to this book from adults. I do think - and I'll maintain this - that part of the reason why teenage boys don't enjoy it is that at some level, they recognise themselves, and don't find it a comfortable experience. Re the shock factor of discovering that deeper layer of mental illness, as a fairly brutal punchline - it seems to hit them in a dramatic sense that takes over from the subtleties of the previous however many hundred pages. At least, that's my impression from Sixteen's reaction.

    I also think it's a good book. I do think it's an important book, given the subject matter, how it's handled and when it was published. Whether it's a REALLY good book or not - I don't know. I think that becomes quite subjective.

    I agree that it's not a book for the average teenager. My sixteen year old student - Sixteen's classmate - has an unusual facility for his age to step back from himself and be very objective. He's also a book junkie with a prediliction for contemporary American literature, so I'm finding he has more insight into this novel than I did at that age, or that Sixteen has now. I must remember to as Twenty-six for his memories, because he also read it at sixteen... It might be intereststing to know how it reads for him ten years on.

  4. I wonder whether my folks still have my books from Year 11 and 12? I suspect not, and I'd probably cringe anyway if I was confronted with the naive, introspective drivel that I likely wrote way back then. Some things are best left alone, though I should like to meet Mrs Thompson again one day and apologise to her for being who I was.

  5. ... and now to tackle that most loathed of books again - The Prime of Miss Jean Bloody Brodie.

  6. Hey Murph -

    A thought... Remember in Year 12 Mrs thompson had us write a journal, as she said we'd be too busy with curriculum based reading and writing to be able to fit in creative assignments in class? I still have mine - I think I could possibly...maybe...lay my beginnings as a writer at her feet due to that journal. However, what always strikes me, and is horribly disturbing to read as an adult, is how appallingly unhappy I was. Maybe that's one of the reasons I found Catcher so difficult to read.

    I've gone and put Miss Jean Brodie into one of the storage boxes, curses. Will have to go see if Penguin Classics have it - at least they are still excellent value for money!

  7. I have read Catcher in the rye and thought the writing style was good. It has a good pace and flows well.
    Yet it has an historic connection for me of death and overwhelming sadness, which it should not have.
    I should have read the book for its own right and not due to the historic connection but these things happen in life.

  8. I think it's inevitable that we invest our own experiences into the things we read - whether they are present or past experiences. It's part of WHY we read - other people's stories are ways for us to connect. As a child, I often read to escape my current circumstances, finding a solace in the worlds the authors created. As an adult, I still do that sometimes - ergo, my large collection of children's literature which provides that escape to this day. But, as an adult, identifying with other aspects of life in fiction can be cathartic, enriching, and any number of other things.

    As you found, sometimes it can colour our experience of a particuloar book - I don't think that's good or bad - it just is...

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