Banned Books Week Special
Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Genre: Young Adult/Coming of Age
My Rating: ★★★★
My first encounter with The Catcher in the Rye took place not so long ago, when I stumbled upon a dog-eared copy of it in a secondhand bookstore. It has a plainer cover than the version I have now; it was just white, and there were half-circles of coffee stains flanking the author’s name. I picked it up out of curiosity and studied the content. For a few minutes I was confused. My first thought was, “Why hasn’t anyone told me it’s made up of blackout poems?” On every page there were thick black marker lines that erased some words, and the ink bled through the succeeding pages. Only when I started to read the first chapter did I realize it was actually vandalized. Some words were “blacked out” not for the sake of art, but for some kind of censorship.
So I bought a brand new copy of the book, the red one with the carousel horse doodle. I read it and found out that the erased portions contain mostly swearwords and sexual references, top reasons why this book became one of the most challenged of all time.
The story is simple. It is December 1949, and the embittered sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield gets expelled from Pencey Prep for getting the ax in almost all his subjects. He worries about his nervous mom, but in truth he is more than happy to get out of yet another school full of “phony” people. He prematurely gets himself out of their dormitory after getting in a fistfight with his narcissistic roommate. When he gets out into the streets to journey back home, he tells us his own version of a series of unfortunate events.
In 20-20 hindsight, it is safe to say Catcher is eternally present on the lists of frequently challenged books in the United States. Sure, there are readers who love it, but the balance beam is teetering heavily on the edge of the negative side. People have their own reasons for disliking it—vulgarity, blasphemy, sexual issues, you name it. But there is one reason I found a tad amusing but understandable: they don’t like Holden for being Holden.
A chain-smoking young man whose favorite hobbies are endless rounds of bellyaching, weaving angsty thoughts from some unspooled flashbacks, and forming all sorts of oath-peppered observation about every little thing that catches his attention. One will think, “Who can like a such a person?” Holden is the ultimate icon of teenage rebellion in his time, and looking at the world from his perspective is no light experience. At the surface he is a defiant figure, but once you learn to see through him you know he is a truly tragic character. I have a soft spot for rebels and tragic (anti)heroes, but what made me like Holden—and his story—is that no matter how much we want to deny it, there is always a bit of him in ourselves.
Holden loathes the world for being superficial and “phony,” but he is guilty of falling into that category most of the time. I think there is a part of us that is just like that, whether you are an adolescent or not. Readers who said they don’t like Holden is in some way saying they don’t like a part of themselves—and that is Holden-esque, too, because he admits he dislikes himself sometimes. It’s all akin to a mobius loop. Similar to what he experiences, there is a point in our lives when we will question how the world works, what on earth we are here for, why life is unfair, why he can be like that and she like this. That thing depresses me, this one killsme. Immaturity, impulsiveness, insecurity, peer pressure. Every once in a while, we will think of our future, but the past catches up with us and makes us screech to a halt in the messy present. And then we will feel lost, in a Holden sort of way. It is always up to us how to get back on track.
It is hard to pinpoint why Holden is the way he is, although I am guessing it has something to do with a few harrowing events in his past. We cannot really tell. For me, he embodies the deterioration of innocence as a human grows in the kind of society he is in. Maybe his life’s compass is forever haywire or there is a chance he has this twisted kind of Peter Pan syndrome for resisting and abhorring maturity, but one thing is clear: he has a vision of what he wants to be. A catcher in the rye, his arms ready to save kids who will fall off a cliff. It is a twee idea, but coming from someone who is clobbered by the ugly truths of life at an early age, it sort of becomes his metaphorical redemption. He wants to protect innocence the way he wants to protect his younger siblings. Notice how even in memory, Holden keeps little Allie amazingly alive.
Not everyone may consider it a “true classic” but I do. It is an unconventional hero’s bildungsroman revolving around an inner conflict, a tale about a boy torn between isolation for self-protection and his constant urge to have company.
I am glad the literary rebel in me stirred when I found the vandalized copy ofCatcher; if it did not, I would have never met Holden. He is not exactly an idol, but he held a cracked mirror in front of me for a while, making me reflect on a few things. And for that, I am thankful. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the few books I will never get tired of reacquainting myself with.