When I found out that a movie about the writing of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was coming out, I rubbed my hands together demonically, cocked my eyebrows, and threw my head back in a villainous laugh. The Rebel in the Rye, out September 8, gave me the opportunity to publicly come down on whether Holden Caulfield’s complaints in The Catcher in the Rye were still worth reading. I already knew what I would write. Of course they're not.
Here’s the gist of the essay I never got around to writing: The Catcher in the Rye is a gravely overrated book, clinging like stubborn gum to the shoe sole of the American public school system’s curricula. What kid in our era of helicopter parents could identify with Holden, who visits hotel bars and has deep chats with prostitutes? What kid who’s groomed to crack SAT questions like code could identify with an apathetic high schooler who’s expelled from school?
Well, as it turns out, me. I could. And in my own angsty past, I did identify with Holden Caulfield.
I happened to have the old copy of The Catcher in the Rye on my shelf. I opened the book, almost eager to let Holden’s rambling sentences about “vomity-looking chairs” and “whory-looking blondes” grate against my precious sensibilities. Come at me, Holden and education establishment, I thought.
That’s not what happened. While flipping through my old book, I saw entire passages underlined. I saw stars in the margins next to sentences like, “It’s not too bad when the sun comes out, but the sun only comes out when it feels like coming out,” as if that idea, in itself, were a flash of sunny brilliance.
That was my blue BIC pen that drew those lines. That was my exclamation point, my enthusiasm bleeding onto the page. Where did that me go? When did I become the person who scoffs at Holden’s selfish aimlessness, his brash rejection of responsibility? My defiant eighth-grade self taunted me with each underline.
I remembered, then, how I’d come to possess this copy of the book. That year, I’d fought with my English teacher to let me read Catcher as my independent study selection. It hadn’t been an option on her original list. Back then, in my own nerdy way, I felt as much a rebel as Holden.
Once, I’d been moved by Holden’s existential plight, by his meanderings and his meanness. Clearly, though, Holden didn’t manage to catch me before I leapt off the edge of the rye field, before I grew up, and away from Catcher’s charm.
What a typical phony and crumby thing of me to do, to think that just because the book didn’t “work” for me now, it also didn’t work for me back then. Suddenly I felt like those adults in The Little Prince who think the boy is drawing a hat, not a snake swallowing an elephant.
In a 2010 article titled, “Get a Life, Holden,” the New York Times fell into the same trap of earnestly questioning Holden’s appeal as I did. The article detailed teachers’ struggle to teach The Catcher in the Rye to uninterested students. Numerous teenagers responded in the comments section, pointing out the brutal irony of adults pronouncing this classic coming-of-age novel, which so embodies a teenager’s dilemma, was outdated.
In the most concise takedown of us phonies, commenter C.M. Dougan wrote, “Asking a bunch of adults whether or not Catcher in theRye will really reach teenagers is pretty funny, if you ask me. This only helps prove Salinger’s point — adults were once young and disillusioned themselves, but they’ve grown out of it, and they assume the rest of the world has grown with them.”
Another commenter wrote, “Salinger’s novel is as universal as it is timeless. But I’m beginning to think that maybe Holden was right about all of you.”
With that, I shook hands with the outraged New York Times commenters and with my former self. They beat me. I change my mind about The Catcher in the Rye, and even why I felt the need to say whether or not a book was “worth” reading in the first place.
Read The Catcher in the Rye, friends. Read my other favorite coming-of-age novel, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which I was going to propose as an alternative in the article I didn’t write. Read whatever you want, and read a lot of it. Just remember to mark up your books profusely, so that one day, when you’re jaded like me, you can commune with your former selves in the margin of a novel, and remember you weren’t always who you are now.
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