If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
-- Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.
Thirty years after its publication in 1945-46, The Catcher in the Rye was both the most banned book in America as well as the second most taught book in public schools.
In 1982, I was eleven years old and Mom gave me a copy of Catcher in the Rye. It was a nondescript paperback with a maroon cover, the title in a simple serif typeface, all caps, in gold. I don't know where that copy came from, maybe it was hers. Maybe it came from a rummage sale (that's what they call garage sales where we're from), a paperback treasure she plucked out of a box filled with old Reader's Digests and People magazines. That's what I imagine, anyway.
Lucky me, Mom was always on the lookout for things that would keep me curious and thinking. Not only did she notice my rather obvious taste for macabre, surreal, supernatural, and otherwise quirky content, she encouraged it by bringing me all the KISS, Stephen King, comic books, and sci-fi I could handle. I guess she figured I was reading, watching, and asking questions -- so that was good enough.
So why Catcher in the Rye? Did Mom look at her son in 1982, with his slightly too-long hair and puffy, didn't-sleep-last-night-cuz-I-was-up-late-reading eyes and think to herself, Jeff needs to meet Holden Caulfield? I could ask her, but somehow I doubt the memory of finding the book and giving it to me is as rich to her as my memories of reading it over and over again (but not in a John Hinckley or Mark David Chapman kind of way... really.)
Whatever the thinking behind her decision to pass me a banned book full of angst, social disgust, and anti-establishment banter (not to mention some fairly coarse language), I've always been gratified by one thing: she trusted me to deal with it, even at the tender age of eleven.
That's not to say she was overly permissive -- she wasn't. My house wasn't full of pornography, easy-to-reach handguns and liquor, or bags of stuff that probably wasn't oregano. However, when it came to my intellectual pursuits (as low-brow as they may have been), she didn't judge -- and trusted me to find my way. So I found my way from Catcher in the Rye to Franny and Zooey. To Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter, and Nine Stories, and so on.
Not long before Mom introduced me to Salinger, my literary interests were mostly centered on X-Men comic books, the liner notes from The Wall and KISS Alive!, and the backs of Honey Nut Cheerios boxes. There I was, balanced on the precipitous edge between young boy and young man, fully immersed in the pure escapism of rock and roll, super heroes and sugary snacks. And whether Mom knew it or not, by giving me that copy of Catcher in the Rye she had built me a bridge to ease that transition.
Hidden in Holden's story was my story. Here was a character on the brink of mental collapse. A scathingly sarcastic, funny, awkward, wonderful character looking for some truth in the world around him. If Gene Simmons, Han Solo, and Wolverine were my heroes, then Holden Caulfield was more like a friend. Perfect for a creative kid facing puberty.
Like all great characters, he made me want to look at the world through his lens for a while. He made me want to expose all things phony, yet with his own actions taught me about some of the phoniness I was capable of myself. To an eleven-year-old growing up in rural New York, Holden seemed like a half-crazy (yet somehow sophisticated) guide through a more exotic world that I had yet to experience first-hand. He was from the city, I was from the country -- but we were both in this incredibly in-between place -- and that made him relatable.
I assume Mom's parental intuition was at work on a subconscious level. Knowing her, she laughed at a lot of the same passages I did, didn't get hung up on the adult themes, and just figured it was time for me to get interested in some real books.
Twenty-two years after that first copy of Catcher, she gave me a beautiful hardcover edition with a nice message written inside, just for me. I've read countless books I can't remember -- but I've never forgotten that book, or the themes inside that resonate in my writing, my music, and even now, the way I look at the world.
And now I'm going to have my own kid and all. If you want to know the truth, I can't wait to give her a goddam copy. I hope she laughs like a madman. I really do.
Brown eyes, brown hair, bluejeans and a T-shirt. Digs loud guitars and good design. Easily hypnotized by green-eyed blondes, shiny leather, B-movies, and brightly packaged foods. He's got a bustle in his hedgerow - but he is NOT alarmed.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.16.06 @ 12:09a
I love Salinger, and I regret that I didn't read Catcher in the Rye 'til I was 30 years old. I don't know whether I want to punch Holden in the throat or have an illicit drink with him. Probably both.
If you want the southern version of Catcher in the Rye, I recommend The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. The main character, Binx, is older by a few years, but his wanderings are no less profound.
I certainly intend to start the pipeline of good books to my boys just as soon as they're able to grasp at the concepts. (Of course, I might slip 'em a few issues of X-Men as well...)
6.16.06 @ 9:08a
First, congratulations on the new child!
I had to read Rye around the same time I read Slaughterhouse Five and The Jungle. Obviously, this was a serious high school lit class.
I recall it being interesting and important, but I don't think it "spoke" to me. In fact, looking back, there were few books with strong or breakout female perspectives during my formative years.
ETA: There was a big joke about reading the not quite as literary Go Ask Alice, which seemed so risque at the time (even 15 years after the drug scene that spawned it), but was nothing more than an afterschool special. And a bad one at that.
6.16.06 @ 9:26a
I read this last nite, drunk. I love that book, and not only because it has bizarro links to assassins.
I was that guy. Still am, in some ways. Hell, look at my IM nickname!
And the "DIGRESSION!" gag NEVER gets old. Ever.
6.16.06 @ 9:27a
Go Ask Alice was AWESOME! In a totally different way, of course. Like Road House is awesome. Or Reefer Madness.
6.16.06 @ 9:32a
I can see why Holden's story wouldn't always jive with the chicks. the narrative is all male hormones and anxiety, for sure. My daughter might not dig it, but she'll get a chance to check it out - and if that doesn't fly, there's always Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Rowling.
6.16.06 @ 10:48a
Ah yes, the wonderful Judy Blume. She managed to tap the teenaged girl psyche pretty well, but more in a "OMG, somebodyoutthereTOTALLYunderstandsme!" kind of way, not so much a voice of a generation way, like Catcher.
See, again, S.E. Hinton, very much leaning toward the male experience. Don't get me wrong - I think these books were monsterously important to help get more young men to read, and The Outsiders was awesome.
But young women had more "fluffy" books to read.
Go Ask Alice was totally fake, Mike. It was ghost-written by an adult who wrote other "beware the dangers of sex and drugs" books. Granted, I didn't find that out until I was 18, but when I read it at 14, it was compelling.
Did it stop my, um, experimentation? Not a chance.
6.16.06 @ 10:56a
I knew that Tracey, that's why it's so funny. It's breathlessly over-the-top. Loved it!
6.16.06 @ 11:23a
Tracey, I sometimes think that The Bell Jar is similar to Catcher both in reputation and feel.
CitR isn't the transformative book for me, but then, I wasn't a teenager when I read it. I've only read Frannie and Zooey of Salinger's other work, but I liked it much more. Are Roofbeam and Nine Stories more like F&Z or CitR?
6.16.06 @ 1:04p
I haven't read F&Z, Brian, but I actually enjoyed Nine Stories more than CitR. Because of your age, I bet you will, too.
6.17.06 @ 8:45a
I was a junior at a convent boarding school when CitR was published in 1951, so I didn't get a chance to read it until a few years later in Gainesville. Holden was of my generation. People talk about him growing up in the fifties, but he actually grew up in the late forties, the latter half of which was just dress rehearsal for the fifties, which makes the assertion not entirely inaccurate. It is, at least, analagous. As a female brought up under oppressive misogyny I didn't find it unusual for a male character to speak for me or my generation. I identified with male fictional characters much more often than with the females. (What kind of a choice is there, for instance, between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan?) Thus, Holden spoke to me and for me in a very personal and compelling way. I have to admit that I loved "Franny and Zooey" more, and read it in serial form every week in The New Yorker before it was ever published in book form. As much as I adore Faulkner there's only one female character in his whole enormous body of work with whom I identify. I'll leave it to you to guess which one. (Hint: she's in the Snopes Trilogy.) So much for female fictional characters.