The other night I finished reading The Catcher in the Rye which is a novel by J. D. Salinger. In my experience, it was definitely a one-of-a-kind book. Funny, interesting, and depressing at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a combination of profanity and profundity.
The book was first recommended to me by a friend probably a little under a year ago. I was at Hastings, trying to see if I could find any books or music that were well priced. As usual, I ended up finding more things than I expected and spent more money than I should have. I can be really stupid about persuading myself to buy things–especially when they have to do with books or music.
While I was walking along one of the main aisles, I noticed a back-to-school book rack. It had a lot of classics and other literature on it that I guess are often seen in schools’ literature programs. The Catcher in the Rye caught my eye almost right away and I picked it up.
My brother Jared had borrowed the book from the public library once, but neither of us had read it while it was checked out. It went back unread. I now know why schools would include this in their literature programs. I grabbed it, along with a volume of Sherlock Holmes and made my purchases.
That evening after I got ready for bed, I sort of randomly picked it up and started reading it. I don’t think I really intended to read it through right away. After all, I had checked out Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the library as well. I fairly distinctly remember opening the first page of the book and really not knowing what the book was about or anything–except that The Catcher in the Rye was supposed to be good.
Two things struck me about it almost right away. First, the writing style grabbed me from the beginning. Salinger, wrote the novel in first person, and in a “stream of consciousness” style–which, if done right can be brutally funny. What I mean by stream of consciousness is that, as the main character, Holden Caufield, tells you his story, his mind strays occasionally, and the narration right with it.
For example, he might be annoyed by a person’s actions, but instead of simply telling us this, he goes on to explain why it annoys him and also maybe other incidents where similar things happened. From there he might think of something else and talk about that for a bit. I often read the book at night before I went to sleep. Several times I would lie in bed shaking with laugher over the way he said things.
Second, I’m pretty sure there were at least two instances of profanity within the first half page. Interesting, I though to myself. It continued with that regularity, or worse, throughout the book. I got tired of it, if you want to know the truth, but it did a very good job of completing the picture of the character in the story. It fit in with the depravity that typified him throughout most of the book.
The plot basically consists of a young man named Holden who basically allows life to happen to him because he is constantly being annoyed by what he calls “phony” people. They do these little things, or have philosophies that somehow set him off. Holden is quite intelligent, but somehow he thinks these minor grievances, etcetera, give him an excuse not to perform in school, or to do basically what he wants. For example, if a teacher of a certain class somehow annoys him, he uses it as an excuse to be lazy and not really get into the subject. As a result, he flunks every subject, except English, and is expelled from school.
Holden decides there’s not much point in sticking around school waiting for vacation to begin so he leaves and takes the train to New York. He doesn’t want to go home because he know that his parents will be angry at him for flunking out of school for the second time. His next three days in New York City are characterized basically by wandering around, blowing money and, drinking–a lot of drinking, and pretty much being a general loser.
As he goes from place to place he blows even more money and becomes more depressed about life. I thought to myself so often that maybe he would learn sometime, but he just kept doing stupid stuff and not catching on. I kept reading and kept getting more frustrated with him. He just didn’t learn.
However frustrating the journey is, it certainly isn’t boring. He continues with his humorous observations. And even while I was frustrated with how idiotic he was, sometimes it was pretty funny too. You can tell by his observations that he is very intelligent, but the irony of all the stupid things he does in spite of his intelligence is just striking. This continues for most of the book.
I don’t want to ruin the book for you if you read it so I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you this. Like all good writers, Salinger does an extraordinary job of resolving the conflict. He shows us that there might be some hope for Holden after all, and he does this in about five or six pages.
I was totally amazed when I thought of how much of the book was spent showing us how messed up and troubled Holden was. Then, with amazing efficiency he shows us there might be a chance after all. Holden had gone back to where his parents lived while they were gone. He liked his sister a lot so he went there to visit her. While he was there he made arrangements to stay at a former teacher’s house. This teacher had taken a liking to Holden in spite of his deficiencies.
I think he had some very profound things to say to him, and it is for this reason, I am not surprised that schools would include it in their literature programs. His teacher Mr. Antolini, talked to him for a long time about taking responsibility for himself and allowing his talents and interests to actually take him somewhere for a change.
He basically tells him that he needs to quit allowing little annoyances and things of that nature to give him excuses to be lazy. Mr. Antolini prompts Holden to admit that he loves knowledge and to let that love of knowledge take him in the direction that it should. He must apply himself and not excuse his laziness by circumstances, etcetera.
I started writing this several days ago and was having a hard time reaching satisfactory conclusions. I knew that it was a good story, but why? Holden shows himself to be such a loser for most of the book, and it’s frustrating. What makes it such a great read?
Then recently I started reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles and a Thousand Years. I just got it in the mail the other day. I am liking it a lot. It’s a book about stories and what makes up a good story. One key element is that the protagonist must want something and that he is going to need to overcome obstacles to get it.
I also thought of one of Don’s recent blog posts and he gave the example of Joseph. He wrote about how Joseph didn’t sleep with Potiphar’s wife because he knew what he wanted. He said as we write our own stories of life, if we don’t know what we want we are more likely to make bad decisions.
I though of this in relation to The Catcher in the Rye and I say to myself, “Absolutley brilliant.” Salinger shows what happens when the protagonist has no idea what he wants in life. He knows lots of things he doesn’t like and doesn’t want, but he has no idea what he wants. That’s why a person like this is so prone to making bad decisions.
If we don’t live our lives intentionally, and simply take whatever comes along, we are a lot more likely to make bad decisions. We end up living dull and meaningless lives because we’re really not sure what we want. We know that something is wrong but since we don’t even know what we want, we don’t know what to change.
This book is amazing. It has a few downfalls including profanity and some risque content. But the general picture of the book is worth it to me. I said earlier, I know now why schools want kids to read this book. With so many kids dropping out of school, for just a few to catch on and turn their lives into something worthwhile would be fabulous.
I think Christians can learn something from this book as well. We especially, as the followers of Jesus, must live our lives intentionally. We can’t expect God to do amazing things through us by just sitting around and taking what comes. God has to be disappointed when we just sit there and expect our lives to produce cool stuff even though we’re not willing to do the work it takes to make it happen. Our talents and interests have to take us somewhere. God gave us them for a reason.
Like Don suggested, you are the protagonist in your own story. Figure out what you want in life and make only the decisions that will help you get it.