Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Review - The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

As an English major and a lover of books, reading and writing, I probably shouldn't admit this...but up until this past week I had never cracked the cover or even read any kind of overview (back of the book blurb or otherwise) of The Catcher in the Rye. It's always been on my "list" to eventually read, but it never climbed up to the top until now.

I don't know if it is/was taught at my High School, but I do know that it wasn't on the required reading list for me in Honors or AP English. I also know that the book was banned for many years and I wouldn't be surprised if there was still a ban (even if unofficial) of it at Viewmont. I decided to do a quick stats check on it being banned and saw that interestingly it has a very divided history. Up until the 80s, it was the most banned/censored book in high schools & libraries. In the early 80s it was paradoxically the "most censored book" and the "second most taught book" in public schools. In situations where it isn't banned outright, it pushes its way into the top 20 list of "most frequently challenged book."

From a super high level reading, I can see where the angst against the book comes from. The book is FULL of profanity from the first page to the last ranging from the more commonplace to the F-bomb. It doesn't help matters that this language is coming from a teenager, the narrator Holden Caulfield. Add to that the fact that this same teenager (and most people he associates with) are constantly smoking and drinking. While there isn't explicit sex in the book, there are numerous high level references to necking, petting and intercourse as well as general explorations of sexuality as a whole. Overall, this is just the sort of book that makes "family values" advocates run for the bonfires.

At the same time, the book is extremely "real" in terms of dealing with the identity crisis and the sort of awakening of self-awareness that happens to teenagers. While I wasn't a swearing, smoking, drinking, sexing teenager (or adult for that matter), I can relate to a lot of things said by Holden. And even though there aren't any earth shattering answers or resolutions given through the narrative, simply exploring these truths rather than brushing them under the carpet is enough to make most teenagers (or anybody who's ever felt alienated, confused, or just anxious about life) able to relate to this book at some level and use it as a launching ground for the basis of their own self-awakening.

The honesty of the narrative voice is refreshing but can also be the cause for some controversy. Most parents or adults don't necessarily want to admit that the youth of the world are struggling with these sorts of issues both in terms of the smoking/drinking/sex and in terms of the emotional and mental anxieties. Whether that's because the adults have suppressed their own anxious memories of their youth or because they don't have any idea how to help their youth through the situations, I'm not sure. But it seems that a lot of times, the adult reaction to "troubled" youth is to just punish them and/or leave them alone and assume that as they mature they'll either turn into upstanding adults and overcome the problems on their own or they'll turn into really bad eggs and end up in prison. Either way, the problem is no longer a threat to society.

There's a lot more I could say about this book, and I haven't even bothered to review it in the same way I've reviewed other recent books, but I think the best thing to say about this book is that it should be read in order to fully digest and understand it. As I mentioned above, there is definitely some content that can be offensive to many readers. However, the way the content is presented feels natural and makes it hard to fault the book or author for its presence but rather just accept the presence as a part of the character you're exploring.

As a parent, I'm a little torn as to when I'd want my kids to read this book. It gets into a sort of maturity conundrum. I'd have some moderate worries that the book could possibly give an immature reader some bad ideas, but if a reader is sheltered from the book until they're "mature" enough to better swallow the concepts, then some of the potential help and insight of the book can be lost. I don't think this book portrays delinquent or rebellious behavior in a positive light by any means. It straddles the fence a little bit with drinking and smoking which is understandable considering the era in which it was written/published (the 40s-50s) but even then, it shows some of the bad effects of these bad decisions.

I think the main thing with this book, as with anything anybody ever decides to approach, is that it should be approached with a grain of salt and with an open mind tempered by mature responsibility. I wouldn't mind seeing this book in my kids' reading list in high school...possibly even junior high. But I'd want to be sure that I (and hopefully the teacher as well, but definitely myself as a parent) discuss with my kids what is to be gained from the book, what is to be learned from the book, and how to poise a reaction to the book. That's not to say that I'd want to brainwash my kids and try to shove propaganda down their throats, but I'd just want to be sure that they (and any reader...yourself included), takes this in (and any book) as something to be learned from but not necessarily emulated.

The Catcher in the Rye is a very intriguing exploration into the psyche of the American teenager (specifically, a male teenager...I'd be curious to hear female reactions) and I think Salinger hit many of the key teenage issues squarely on the head without coming off as preachy or condescending. Apart from the controversy of the content, perhaps that non-preachy form is another thing that makes society dislike this book. It explores a lot of the problems of teenage life, but never sets for a clear course of action to overcome them...leaving the teenager to figure things out for him/herself. Depending on the support structure of the kid, having all those ideas and issues opened wide could either be very constructive or very destructive. I hope to help my kids with the 'constructive' path when they get around to reading it.


4 1/2 stars

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