by Ranelle Irwin
I’d always heard about The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. It’s been on numerous banned book lists and has caused parents to question the moral integrity of high school English programs all over the United States. Naturally, this only heightened my desire to read it over winter break.
Salinger creates an engaging conversational tone by adapting his writing style to follow patterns of speech—from the way we enunciate certain syllables to the way that conversations are often cyclical and repetitive rather than logical and straightforward.
Holden and Mr. Antolini, a former teacher, talk at the end of the book about Holden’s Oral Expressions class. Richard Kinsella, a boy who didn’t always stick to the point, led the schoolboys to shout, “Digression!” every time Richard veered off-topic.
Holden says, “I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of the time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most . . . What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something.”
In some ways, the book models this idea—it doesn’t always stay on topic and it brings up old topics, copying them almost verbatim. Some readers may find this off-putting since it deviates from the storytelling techniques in a typical novel, but in a sense, it heightens the realism in the story. Real life is not always straightforward, and Salinger captures this brilliantly.
Some readers will find some of the references and topics dated—and at times, laughable. For instance, Holden is criticized by his younger sister or other people he knows because of his foul language characterized by God’s name in vain. (For contrast, one of the books read at my high school used the f-word copiously. The fact that people still call out this book for its explicit language makes me chuckle.) Cigarettes are smoked by everyone and their mother, and the word “necking” is used to refer to making out and to insinuate sexual desire. If these things don’t offend you, you probably won’t object to the “immoral” content of the book.
Where the book particularly shines is when it leaves you questioning. Was Holden sexually abused? Is he mentally ill? Why is he obsessed with “phonies”? Why is he focused on the ducks? Holden is also a compulsive liar, which leads the reader to wonder whether or not he’s even telling us the truth.
Some may find Holden unlikable and see the story as a tale of him whining about the world. Upon reflection and research, the book takes a different shape—one of adolescent struggles, feelings of loneliness, and a semblance of immaturity that colors all of our pasts in some way. He’s not a lovable character, but he’s painfully relatable.
If you read this when you were younger, I encourage you to read it again in a few years. You may be able to see Holden—and yourself—in a different light.