For about the last six months or so a fellow reader at book club and I have been asking (some may say pestering!) the group organiser to do the Salinger classic The Catcher in the Rye. In hindsight I may have been too eager with this request, as this book is easily in my top two or three of all time and the fear of having fellow members criticise is was not something I was looking forward to. I love this book that much.
I think my love of this book stemmed from the fact that I read it at the perfect age to be influenced by it – the main character Holden’s age, in fact, 16. It was the first book I read which inspired me completely. It spoke to me in a way that no book really ever has since. Holden Caulfield has become an icon for teenage rebellion and I was another who was swept up in it. Its brilliance is in its dealing with the themes of loneliness, loss, identity and belonging that teenagers have struggled with since time began. And despite being seventy years old now, it will speak to those teenagers for generations to come. The ‘catcher in the rye’ analogy describes Holden’s wish to keep the aspects of childhood – innocence, kindness, that he fails to see in all the adults he meets. He is disillusioned with the ‘phoniness’ of the adult world, which is again a seductive and powerful emotion that teenagers feel.
Some of the set-pieces and vignettes are hilarious, too. There are many characters who spring off the page in the matter of a few words and even on the umpteenth reading still make me laugh. I knew people much like them when I was growing up and that familiarity is a joy, particularly the character of Carl Luce, Holden’s so-called friend from school. I knew a guy exactly like him at school, with the fluffed up self-importance and over exaggerated tales of sex. I could go on, but I would urge anyone to read this book, and if you have kids, give it to them too.
Of course I can’t move on from this without saying that a couple of people on our group flat-out hated the book. The main accusations were that the language is repetitive (which is a valid point, but the colloquialisms that Holden uses are the vernacular of the teenagers of that time), and that they couldn’t empathise with Holden, finding his narrative both boring and whiny. I guess this viewpoint may arise from reading the book for the first time as an adult, where the prejudices are more likely to influence a point of view. I respect those opinions, but reject them. I can’t overstate the effect this book has had on my life and will always be grateful for its influence.
Our second choice was by British auther Jasper Fforde, who has forged a reputation writing extraordinary fantasy tales with time travel, mystery and comedic elements. His novel The Eyre Affair has a detailed and very complex plot which I won’t describe here, but is the product of a fertile imagination and overflows with ideas. Indeed, my main criticism of the book is that there was too much going on and some of the strands were not fully developed, particularly the romance storyline which felt a bit like an afterthought. There were enough good ideas to fill a couple of novels at least, which would have allowed some cutting of this book down to a leaner tome. I did still enjoy it though, and Fforde’s love of literature shines throughout. His playful style of writing is infectious too, its clear that he had a very good time writing this book and that comes through loud and clear.
Thinking about Catcher right now I realise how much I think of the book – it has seeped into my being like very few things have, perhaps the odd song and film. It makes it very difficult to be objective about it, its almost as much of a part of me as a childhood scar. Maybe more so.