This is a book that many have read (especially as it is often a school text) but which seems to elicit very different responses from people; some love it, some hate it, and many others simply claim not to ‘get it’. For my part, I think this is a bona fide classic of American literature; an absolutely essential text of the twentieth century.

If you have never read it, it is the account of a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, as he wonders around New York after being expelled from his prestigious prep school just before the Christmas vacation. Hence it has often been summarised as a coming-of-age novel; an angst-ridden account of an American teenager rebelling against the world as he sees it. But Catcher in the Rye is also so much more than this.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Salinger has an extraordinary skill in conveying  the thoughts, speech, motives and actions of his teenage / young adult characters, and Holden is perhaps his most memorable. For all his worldly-wise talk and explorations into drinking, smoking and sex, Holden is still very much a child – and yet also a young adult – and it is this constant tension that makes him so intriguing. He wants everything that the adult world has to offer, yet he also resists change; he desperately wants to ‘hold-on’ to many of the values, memories and people who have been part of his childhood.

Another key aspect of this book is the desire Holden has to really know people and be known by them, yet this desire is constantly being frustrated by his inability to relate to those around him. His relationship with the other guys at school, with the various girls he meets and even with members of his family are characterised more by misunderstandings and petty annoyances then by real, meaningful communication.

That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

It seems to Holden that his kid sister Phoeobe is perhaps the only real, unspoilt  person left, and there are some beautiful scenes between the two of them, with Salinger deftly showing different sides to Holden’s fragile character.

This novel has a lot to say about many aspects of the modern world, and this, coupled with the fact that there are several different ways of interpreting Holden and his account, make this a book worth reading again and again. (I’ve read this novel three times so far, and do not doubt that I’ll be picking it off the bookshelf again sometime in the not-too-distant future. It really is that good.)

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it 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.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.