I seem to have books on my mind a lot lately, in that I’m dwelling on all those books that have been significant in my life. I touched on the books of my childhood yesterday. Today it’s the turn of my adolescence.
Recently I answered a random “getting to know you” question – what is the book that has had the most profound impact on you?
Although I’ve read thousands of books, I had no hesitation in my response:
I first read Catcher at age 16. It was on the school syllabus. I think even for a reader like myself, at age 16 when you know you have to read a book or play or poem for school, it’s somewhat tainted before you even read a word. Which is very unfortunate and unfair when I think about it, because if I had to list my top 5 favourite pieces of literature, they all came from a school or university syllabus! The Catcher in the Rye, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, Wuthering Heights, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Macbeth.
Onto Catcher, however. I’ve read the occasional review of J D Salinger’s novel over the years, and have to admit I scratch my head over some of them, because my interpretation was and is so different. An expression of teenage angst and rebellion? No, I didn’t see it that way. To borrow a sentiment from Wuthering Heights itself – when Cathy says, “I am Heathcliff” – well, without putting too fine a point on it, I am Holden Caulfield; and frankly I was the least angsty and rebellious teenager you could come across.
I would sometimes laugh and giggle when I read Catcher – not because it’s comedy, it most definitely isn’t, although Holden’s vernacular was amusing to a teenage Australian girl in the eighties and still entertains now. I would laugh in delight because I didn’t feel alone or strange or a weirdo when I read Catcher. I knew exactly what Holden meant by wanting to be the catcher in the rye – desiring the preservation and protection of innocence; I identified with his abhorrence of phoniness, his bumbling, desperate efforts to communicate and make connections.
When I went through difficult times in my life, I carried Catcher with me in my bag. Sometimes I would fish it out of my bag and read a random few paragraphs and I drew strength from it. After I answered that random question recently, I pulled the novel off my shelf and read it again. It hadn’t lost its impact.
The reviews about Catcher on Goodreads are astonishing in their range – the book is obviously polarising. I literally cannot understand the one-star reviews and my overwhelming reaction to those is that the reviewer “doesn’t get it”. That’s all cool, I know books mean different things to people, that’s one reason I don’t make too much of a point in accepting reviews as indicative of how I’m going to feel about a book. By the same token, the five-star reviews of Catcher, whilst being accurate in my opinion, fail to fully grasp all its nuances; I certainly haven’t done it here. I believe it’s impossible to do so, and that’s the genius of Salinger. Catcher is one of those books you just have to feel, and tap into and accept as valid what you are feeling. That swelling of the heart, the prickling of the eyes, the joy and sadness and desperation, evoked while reading it and when remembering it.
I’ll finish with hands-down the best quote from a book ever:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though“.
Amen to that, Holden.