“Must we go on with this inane conversation?” someone inquires of Holden Caulfield at one point in The Catcher in the Rye. It’s a question I recall asking myself a few times back when I read the book.
I suppose maybe I read the book too late to really “get it”, too late in my life and too late in the history of our nation and world. For some reason I didn’t read it until I was an adult. I went to high school in the 1980’s, and even though political correctness was in its embryonic stage Catcher had already been deemed too scandalous for young ears.
That “scandal” is, in my opinion, what has really vaulted Catcher to its abstract significance. It has given the book an undeserved level of prestige. We tend to embrace the forbidden, to be drawn to the esoteric. Telling teenagers that a book has been banned gives that book a one way ticket to Coolsville and makes the youngsters want to read it that much more. Unfortunately in this case the controversy is much ado about nothing. From my viewpoint it seems like a bunch of uptight wet blankets got themselves in an uproar about some “damns” and “hells” and various instances of taking The Lord’s name in vain. I’m not saying these are good things by any means, but I am suggesting perspective. Banning The Catcher in the Rye from…well, anywhere…..while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the garbage that has been appearing on our televisions and movie screens with increasing quantity and intensity over the past couple of decades seems somewhat misguided.
The book itself is an easy read…..too easy as a matter of fact. The first time I read it I kept waiting for the symbolism, foreshadowing, and other hallmarks of great literature. I pegged Holden Caulfield as a Shakespearean tragic hero with a fatal flaw in the mold of Macbeth or King Lear. I assumed there had to be some reason why many thought of this as such a great novel. All I got for my intellectual effort was a reminder of what happens when one assumes.
The “hero” Caulfield is just an irksome and petulant bundle of neuroses. I suspect that if I’d done my academic duty when I was supposed to, at around age 14 or 15, I might have more closely identified with the whole angst vibe, the sense of being perpetually unimpressed and underwhelmed by everything and everyone. But it’s amazing what a difference a decade or so can make. Two decades really changes the game. As cynical as I can be, as adept as I am at openly mocking the absurdity in our world, even I find Holden Caulfield to be a bit much. He’s the kind of galling personality that in “real life” would have people just waiting with fervent anticipation for him to fall on his face. It’s difficult to like Holden or feel any semblance of compassion for his plight. He does have a tendency to accurately see through the speciousness of others, one of his few redeeming qualities.
I don’t dislike The Catcher in the Rye. It’s a decent, well written story. I don’t feel like the time I spent reading it (and re-reading it years later) was necessarily wasted. I’m just of the opinion that those who deem it as one of the best books ever written are giving gravitas to something unworthy of their passion.