It’s Lonely in the Rye

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…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.

“]Cover of The Catcher in the Rye, red with yellow lettering

By Aavindraa [see page for license , via Wikimedia Commons"

I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time when I was in 10th grade.  I don’t remember if I picked it up of my own accord, or if it was one of the many books my father passed on to me, recommending I give it a read.  All I know is that upon finishing it, I knew I would never read a better book.  I’ve now read it more times than I can count, and although I wouldn’t have initially thought it possible, my love for the book has only grown deeper as the years have passed.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hasn’t read it.  What strikes me as weird, though, is that I’ve also never met anyone else who really cares to talk that much about it.  I admit that it’s something of a cliché to say that The Catcher in the Rye is your favorite book, but at the same time… well, how could it not be?

The book reads like a brief retelling of a series of events that led to the hospitalization of the narrator, Holden Caulfield.  He’s been kicked out of prep school for the umpteenth time, and appears to be without ambition or direction of any kind.  He has a difficult relationship with his parents, but a loving one with his younger sister, Phoebe.  His other two siblings, Allie and D.B., are both somewhat absent from the narrative–Allie having died a few years earlier, and D.B. living in on the other side of the country in Hollywood.  Because he doesn’t want his parents to know he’s been kicked out of school again, he spends a few days wandering aimlessly around New York City, waiting for what would have been the beginning of his winter break, so that he can go home without arousing his parents’ suspicion.

Every time I read it, I stumble across one more thing about it that blows my mind, from the tiniest details, like Holden getting upset when he comes across a vulgar phrase written on the wall in Phoebe’s school, to the overall narrative, in which Salinger captures his main character’s inner monologue so well that it’s hard to believe that Holden isn’t real.

So what is it, exactly, that gives people pause when it comes to talking about Catcher?  I’ve discussed a lot of books with a lot people, and yet I’ve never met anyone who wants to have an in-depth discussion about this one.  I once read my fiancé my favorite passage, and when I finished, he was silent.  After a minute or two, we moved on to a different topic of conversation altogether.  What gives?

Is it because the book is so well known?  Is it taken for granted because it’s assigned in every high school English class?  Is it flat out dismissed for that reason?  The plot and the language are simple– does this mean people think of it as unworthy of intellectual attention?  Or is it that some of the themes are now so played out as to appear almost hackneyed?

Whatever the reason, I frequently find myself wishing I had someone with whom I could discuss the book.  Instead, though, I find meandering through a maze of people who either don’t understand or don’t agree– oddly, my love of The Catcher in the Rye puts me in much the same situation as the book’s protagonist: isolated, alone, and trying to make sense of a world that I don’t quite understand.

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Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at http://www.icametorun.com.
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8 Comments on “It’s Lonely in the Rye”

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    1. Avatar of Teri Drake-Floyd
      Teri Drake-Floyd

      Oh, that book is depressing. Good, but very, very depressing. I’ll never forget when we read that in school. My teacher burst into tears reading the last paragraph aloud.

  1. Avatar of Sherfect
    Sherfect

    This may be a bit scatterbrained, but bear with me. I feel like one of very few people who didn’t love Catcher. To be fair, I read it my second year of college rather than while I was in high school, but I’m not sure it would have made much difference. I was responsible and goody-two-shoes probably to a fault my whole life so I found it impossible to relate to Holden. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just do what he was expected because that’s what came easily to me so why why WHY couldn’t he just suck it up and grow up?!

    As Teri Floyd pointed out as well, I think Holden’s misogynistic tone was another part of what put me off. It’s weird, though, I read Lolita around the same time and somehow didn’t carry the same kind of constant loathing for Humbert as I did for Holden. Maybe there was something about Catcher that was just too close to home, reminding me of how I always felt like I couldn’t relate to my peers. As if Holden represented all the other people my age that I just didn’t understand. I don’t know if that’s really the case or not, but it’s the only theory I’ve got.

    I wonder if I’d feel differently if I read it again now that I’m in a different place in my life, but I have to admit I’m not sure I really want to. Love it or hate it, it’s certainly a book that generates strong feelings in people, so I’m surprised more people don’t feel like discussing it.

  2. Avatar of Rachel Gamin
    Rachel Gamin

    I’ve always felt a bit left out because I didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, although so many of my friends adored it. I might have read it a bit too early, however – I might have been ten or eleven. I remember being in a Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck phase about the same time that some of my peers discovered Salinger. (I was the uber-dork in all respects but especially in things literary.)

    Anyway, I suspect it was simply that I didn’t feel a connection to Holden and couldn’t identify with him. On the other hand, I wonder now if it was that I didn’t want to admit that I identified with him and maybe I was afraid to see the anger and confusion in myself. I keep thinking that one day I’ll return to it with my adult perspective and feel differently.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  3. Avatar of KitzyKid
    KitzyKid

    I’m going to kind of echo AA and Slay Belle. In so many ways, it’s like Holden is me as a teen. I think my issue is that now, Holden is a character I no longer identify with, but he’s also a character that I no longer want to identify with. Talking about the novel makes me think back in disgust on how ignorant and immature I was at the time I did love and identify with Holden.

    But ultimately I think that is the genius of Catcher in the Rye. So many of us are echoing these statements. It’s like Salinger captured a moment in our collective youth that we all reach at some point, to some degree. That lost feeling, where we don’t know where we are going next, where we are disillusioned with our ideas of the world from our childhood, but we also aren’t entirely ready to let them go. Holden is that asshole kid we are a little ashamed to say we were.

  4. Avatar of Teri Drake-Floyd
    Teri Drake-Floyd

    Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite books as well. In fact, I gave it to my brother for Christmas when he was 15. I love J.D. Salinger.

    I think a lot of people find the book misogynistic in tone. The way he talks about his female counterparts, the whole scene with the prostitute, and the way he thinks about/talks about the women he’s interested in. I think that whole memoir that Joyce Maynard (that is her name, isn’t it?) came out with about her relationship with J.D. Salinger (when he was already an old man and she still a teenager) also colors people’s view of him and his work.

    I imagine a little bit of it also has to do with Mark David Chapman forever soiling that book when he chose to use it as motivation to kill John Lennon.

    That’s why I love the book, though. Holden is not the most lovable of characters. He’s kind of an asshole. He’s definitely an entitled brat. He has some really ignorant ideas of the world. He gets offended at small things that probably mean nothing and then turn around and do far worse to the people he loves. He’s immature, he’s angry, and he’s got issues. But all of that is WHY I love the book! He’s a typical teenager, struggling and flailing and hasn’t got a freaking clue. And that has always spoken to me. The language flows, the book is basically a story of a whole bunch of depressing nothing, but as a teenager, that’s how I felt.

    I recently read a satirical article on Cracked.com that talked about major characters from movies/books and what mental illness they had. They suggested that Holden Caulfield was suffering from PTSD (and that J.D. Salinger probably was as well, based on his experiences in the military). It makes sense to me.

  5. Avatar of [E] Slay Belle
    [E] Slay Belle

    I’m in the same boat as @Ailanthus-altissima — this is a book that I identified with very intensely in my teenaged years because I felt it spoke to the kind of person I was then. My notions of who I was when I read it are intricately wrapped up with what I think about the book and sometimes that’s not a place I want to revisit. That being said, I love Catcher in the Rye. It was one of the best books I was made to read in high school, along with 1984, Great Expectations, and Of Mice and Men.

    I’ve run the community book club for a decade and just this past year I browbeat them into re-reading Catcher. I hadn’t read it since college and I was really worried about how I would feel about Holden now that I’m in my 30s. Would I find him overwrought? Overblown? Ridiculous? And I found that I actually felt a tremendous amount of sadness for him and that horrid age, so much empathy for his pain. I was really glad to revisit it.

    One of the women in the group is in her late 80s and was a very young woman when Catcher was released. It was amazing to hear her talk about what an impact the book made at the time and how incredibly controversial it was — she said there was not a person she knew who hadn’t read it, and that there had never been a book like that in popular consciousness before.

  6. Avatar of Ailanthus-altissima
    Ailanthus-altissima

    Catcher in the Rye is one of a handful of books that sort of defines my experience as a teenager. While I still respect the book for what it meant to me, I can no longer relate to it the same way I did when I was 15. Beyond that, talking about the book in depth forces me to return to that point in my life, and share more than I am comfortable sharing with people I don’t know well. Maybe that’s a testament to how much the book resonated with me, after all, I don’t feel that way about many, many books that I love. For me, talking about Catcher in the Rye is talking about myself and about my past. I an incapable of extricating myself from the story.

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