By Zac Baker
Some people suggest that certain things get better with age, and I would add the caveat that the list of things that actually fit that cliché is extremely short.
A recent read of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger did not convince me that it is getting better as it gets older, nor is becoming obsolete with age. It is just staying somewhere in the middle with plenty of good and bad to go around.
I had never read Salinger’s novel before, which apparently is quite a feat for a 24-year-old college senior—everyone I talked to about the book had read it as part of a high school English class. It was originally published in 1951, and a New York Times review by Nash K. Burger that July called it an “unusually brilliant novel.” In 2005 “The Catcher in the Rye” was included in Time’s list of the best 100 novels written after 1923.
So apparently people think this book is a big deal.
The story focuses on Holden Caulfield, a teenager living in New York in the years after World War II. The story begins just as he is kicked out of an expensive boarding school, and we follow him on his misadventures as he heads to New York City in search of something to set his life right (in some combination of alcohol, companionship and a quest for sex, is seems).
Salinger’s greatest accomplishment in “The Catcher in the Rye” is writing a book from a teenager’s point of view and actually making it read like a teen is telling the story. Unlike novels of today where heroes and heroines set out in their tender teenage years to face something insurmountable, Caulfield is clearly still an adolescent. He has a lot to learn about life, both in how he handles things while he is alone and how to interact with others on a friendly and romantic level. Novels of the present written about teenagers have wisdom far beyond their years, vocabularies of working professionals, and responsibilities and perspectives that are unrealistic in almost every way.
While these modern stories are nice, though often a bit too idyllic, the authenticity of Caulfield’s struggle as a teen is the best part of the book. We have all been annoyed at that classmate that mooches off of everyone else and gets away with it. We have all faced the awkwardness and insecurity of our first romantic encounters. These are the things that Caulfield lives, and they are things we can relate to. He is a character far more relatable to all of the high school students who are reading this “classic” than any other character from their assigned works during all of their education. Not Jay Gatsby from “The Great Gatsby;” Hester Prynne of “The Scarlett Letter” nor a majority of Shakespeare’s youthful characters can speak to the heart of the reader quite like Caulfield.
The problem with the relatable teenage narrative is that, just like our overblown problems when we were teenagers, Salinger has drawn out the plot of this book. We learn that Caulfield has been kicked out of prep school within the first few pages, but then it takes a long time for him to actually leave. Nothing important happens in the meantime. The same thing happens once he is out of school and in the big city—a conflict is presented, and it takes pages and pages for it to be resolved, if at all. So for all of the tender moments that a reader can have with Caulfield and his progress (or regression) in life, it takes a while to get to each one. That probably makes “The Catcher in the Rye” a little more realistic, but it could have been trimmed to move faster.
If I made a list of all the books I have read that are more than 60 years old, Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” clearly has longevity strictly because of its protagonist. The issues presented are real, complex and as pertinent now as they were then— this story has kept its relevance. But taking all of the books in that same stack and ranking them by engagement and overall readability, this novel sits toward the bottom of the pile.
And that is why it is not getting any better with age. ♦