Often, reading books at different times in one’s life produces different results and different interpretations. But perhaps no book makes a clearer demarcation between adolescence and adulthood than J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. This cult classic is a litmus test for growing up.
When I read this masterpiece as a teen, I thought Holden Caulfield was the coolest kid ever – a common reaction. A friend of mine even wore a deerstalker hat to high school, as the narrator does throughout much of his journey from prep school to New York. Holden’s rants about societal hypocrisies echo our own adolescent realizations that much of what we have been taught to believe as children is lies. “If you want to know the truth,” he says, “I can’t even stand ministers. The ones they’ve had at every school I’ve gone to, they all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons. God, I hate that. I don’t see why they can’t talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.” And so, Holden became one of my teen heroes, as he had for so many others.
Then I taught this book in a class consisting mostly of adult-aged women. Our reaction? “That poor boy!” Little Holden is so insecure, so scared, and so torn-up by the death of his brother that he acts out in all sorts of rebellious ways. His dangerous attitude is all a nervous front, a fact that becomes clearer with every tough-talking word. “I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet.” Sure you have, Holden. Sure you have. When he tells us, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life,” we see through his front, and into the damage that makes him lie.
Does this mean Catcher in the Rye isn’t as good as I thought? Not at all! It is much better – a careful study of adolescent psychology and a perfect crystallization of our teenage truths. This book is a mirror that grows with us and reveals the things we have lost as well as who we have become.