(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
by JD Salinger
#9 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Not so much of a traditional plot-based story, The Catcher in the Rye is instead a look at a 48-hour block in the life of an American teen named Holden Caulfield, a skinny and obnoxious kid who comes from a generally comfortable, decent family on the east coast, but who for some reason just seemingly can't get along with anyone or fit in anywhere. In fact, as the novel opens, Holden has just gotten kicked out of yet another private prep school; it is right before holiday, in fact, with his family expecting him home in two days anyway, so he's decided to just hoof it around the New York area for the next 48 hours and spend some time thinking about his life.
As a result, not much of note actually happens to Holden over the next two days -- he visits an old teacher he doesn't like very much, invites an ex-girlfriend he doesn't like very much to go traveling with him, eventually ends up in Manhattan, then back at his parents' place, and then finally an amusement park while entertaining his little sister. The main point of the book, then, is to try to understand Holden as a character and deeply flawed human; to watch the way he looks at life, to notice the way he idolizes his older brother, out in Hollywood and making a living as a screenwriter. Holden is both restless and old-fashioned, tender and cruel, someone who is sometimes blurting out uncomfortable truths and sometimes lying right to your face. And by the time we're done, hopefully we've learned something not only about him in particular but about teens in general, and especially the sense of alienation and standoffishness that comes to so many at that age no matter when in history we're talking about.
The argument for it being a classic:
The argument for this being a classic is a clean and simple one -- it is demonstrably the very first book in history to establish the "confessional young adult" genre, one that has grown in our modern times to accommodate tens of thousands of books and millions of grateful teen fans. Before Catcher in the Rye, its fans say, there were only two types of stories considered appropriate for younger readers -- either moralistic tales that very sternly taught right from wrong, or the kind of psuedo-science babble mysteries like I was mentioning last week, when I was reviewing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Salinger was the very first person to publish a book about a teen written from the teen's point of view himself, a very raw point of view that contains sex, filth, cursing galore, and all the other prurient stuff that comes with peeking inside a 16-year-old boy's head; it was a breakthrough of the Modernist era, fans claim, one of those seminal projects that broke the ground for all the naturalistic books and films in the '50s, '60s and '70s that came afterwards. Oh, and if this weren't enough, it just also happens to be the most censored book in the history of the United States, as well as a personal favorite of both Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr (who shot Ronald Reagan); these facts alone almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics.
The argument against:
The main argument against this being a classic seems to be that it's become a victim of its own success; indeed, Catcher in the Rye has been so influential over the decades, its critics say, an entire genre of "Salingeresque" work now exists (which like I said is more formally known as "confessional young adult"), many books of which are actually much better than the original that started them all. After all, let's admit it, Catcher in the Rye has its problems, ones typical of any young and inexperienced writer (which Salinger was when first penning this); just as one good example, there are only so many times you can use the word 'g-ddam' in one story before it becomes a self-parodying joke. Like many of the books being reviewed in this essay series, I don't think there's a single human out there who would deny this novel's historical importance; but that's not what we're trying to determine here with the CCLaP 100, but rather whether it's a book you personally should read before you die.
So imagine my shock when I found myself finishing this book and saying to myself, "My God -- JD Salinger is basically Judy Blume with more cursing." (Or to be completely fair, I guess that should be worded -- "My God, Judy Blume is basically JD Salinger with Jews and menstruation.") I guess I had been expecting a lot more, given what a supernaturally high regard this book has among such a large swath of the general population; I was expecting it to not only be a good Young Adult novel (which it admittedly is) but also something that was going to reveal some sort of transcendent truth about the world to me as a fully-grown adult.
Er...it doesn't. This is just a good Young Adult novel, and you owe it to yourself to know that going into it; that unless you're a teen yourself when you read it, there really isn't going to be anything too terribly original or groundbreaking found in this manuscript. In fact, you could argue that Salinger was quite smart to basically wall himself off from the press and general public after this book, and never publish again (he's still alive, by the way, for those who don't know, reputedly living a happy and quiet life somewhere on the Atlantic Seaboard); because ultimately this is not a great book but simply a good one, eventually made legendary because of the time period it was published, and the subsequent reclusive career that Salinger has had. Its overwhelming historical significance I think earns it a place on the classics list, plus the fact that it's not actually a bad book at all; it's just that this is a kind of book that adults have already read many times before, especially if you were a fan of such authors as Betsy Byars when you were a teen yourself.
Is it a classic? I suppose
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In two Fridays: Washington Square, by Henry James
In three Fridays: The Republic, by Plato
In four Fridays: The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov