If I had to pick one book which I would say changed my life, it would have to be The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I first discovered the novel when I was 13, right at the start of my adolescence, and the impact it had upon me was probably greater than any other book I have read, either before or since.
Holden Caulfield put into words the chaotic mess of thoughts and feelings which had been building up inside me, but which I couldn’t find the means to express. The novel gave me a vicarious, vital outlet for the loneliness, anger, anxiety, and sense of being an outcast which persisted through my teenage years; and helped me make some sense of the baffling, ass-backwards, seemingly insane world of adulthood. Even if a lot of that sense boiled down to “The world is shit and all adults are phony, jaded assholes”, the reassurance helped immensely. Between the pages of this unassuming little red-and-white book, I had found understanding and a like-minded ally, a mentor of a strange kind, and a friend. Catcher legitimised my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs at a time when it seemed like no-one else could or would, something which in turn allowed me to legitimise them to myself. Had I not picked up the novel, I doubt very much whether I would have become the person that I am today.
Moreover, as I’ve gotten older, my affection for the novel and its open-armed acceptance of my teenage thoughts and feelings has left me with a deep, I hope indelible, respect for the opinions and feelings of young people. Salinger in no way stereotypes or talks down to his teenaged protagonist in his writing of him, and Catcher serves as a powerful reminder that, though they might seem juvenile to an adult mind, the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of children and adolescents are every bit as valid as those of older people. Even now, just over 10 years after picking up the novel for the first time in my high school English class, I get a flash of those old feelings, and of the immense relief I felt upon finding someone — even a fictional someone, even an author three times my age, of the opposite gender, from a country on the other side of the Atlantic which I’d never visited — who could relate to and validate them. Who could make me feel less alone.
The other thing Catcher gave me was hope. Hope that there were other people in the world who saw and thought and felt in similar ways to myself, and that there was not only personal merit, but liberation and an immense joy in staying true to myself and my goals (one of which was then, and remains now, to write novels for teenagers). Dark as parts of the novel are, the enduring nature of hope and the maintenance and even reclamation of innocence is illustrated throughout. The scene involving the ducks of Central Park and the question of where they go during the winter, in addition to being hilarious, illustrates this powerfully. The simplicity of Holden’s question evokes the curiosity of a child, and plunges the adult reader, even just for a moment, back into the wonder and beauty of a world which age and worry have made banal and even ugly.
Finally, one of my favourite things about The Catcher in the Rye is the fact that its meaning is deeply personal to each reader; no two people I’ve spoken to about the novel have come away with the same impression. I like to think of it like Marmite; a novel you either love, loathe, or are confused as to why anyone would want to even engage with this weird creation in the first place. The narrative quirkiness which provokes such divergent reactions in people is illustrated by the fact that the book, in any edition or format in which it is produced, has no blurb. The lack of expectation regarding what the reader is supposed to “get out” of the novel frees up each individual to just read the work as they find it, and make of it what they will; much as Holden does with life during his adventures in New York. In this way, Salinger’s text provokes a confrontation not between the reader and a theme or a character, but between the reader and their (perhaps much younger) self.
…But this article is starting to sound like the English essay I’m currently procrastinating on, and not something Holden Caulfield would be at all thrilled to read about himself and his story! Whatever else The Catcher in the Rye is, it is side-splittingly funny; despite being published in 1951, Salinger’s razor-sharp satire and pithy descriptions of certain, universally recognisable personality types are as funny and relatable today as when the book was first published. This is one of the very few novels I have read which gripped me like a vice from the first word, and stayed with me long after I had finished it. I have read it cover to cover innumerable times, and always find something new to marvel at, some observation or image which remains strikingly relevant to my own life even now. I would recommend it to young adults aged 13-18, and anyone older who feels themselves still suitably in touch with their inner teenager. In conclusion…well, ironically enough, Salinger has once again summarised my feelings with characteristic incisiveness several pages into his novel:
“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.”