Ask.fm Asks: What do you think about Catcher in the Rye? I tried to read it but can’t get to like it like many people apparently do. Am I missing something?

I kinda want to be a more active blogger this year and Ask.fm is a dick. So for questions that make me push beyond the character limit and want to write more, they will be published as blog posts. Feel free to ask more at Ask.fm.

I think Catcher in the Rye is one of those books that has really good writing, but hard to connect for a lot of people. On a technical level, Catcher is cool because it was first written as a third person novel but it became first person afterwards when Salinger felt something was off. Many novels, especially those for young adults and first-person narratives, have so much to owe to Catcher. Western writers tend to write in a distant third-person (or omniscient), so Catcher itself is a big black sheep by being in an effective first-person novel. Plus it’s fun to read aloud because of how Salinger plays with how sentences sound. The rhythm makes Catcher an immersive read.

For example, the famous title drop:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

The sentence variation and the places you pause are deliberate. It mimics the way Caulfield speaks in a “writerly” voice, but there is also a certain cadence to the writing. I can’t really describe it since I’m not well-versed in poetry techniques. But whenever I read poetry or novels I find that are fun to read aloud, the sounds the sentence make click with me. It makes me put the book down and linger on those sentences. It makes me envious that writers and poets can make those stressed and unstressed syllables, something I am usually unconscious about, into a writing form similar to music. Combine Salinger’s writing ear and the subject matter and this passage, small as it seems, is actually larger than life. I’m no poetry expert, but isn’t that what poems are — to capture a feeling or idea in an amount of sparse but beautiful words?

But if you are reading Catcher for pleasure and not study, chances are you probably don’t like this novel because something is off-putting. You may even say that you think the voice is great, but Caulfield is a really unlikable character. I thought like that when I was a teenager reading it for class. Was it the way I read back then that put me into a crusade against Catcher for many years? Or was it because of the education? Who knows. I’d probably appreciate Catcher more if I read it now as a 22 year old guy who believes innocence is wonderful but dying like cherry blossoms.

Most people would read it and think, “Oh, I’m so like Holden Caulfield!”, and that’s why they like the novel. But Catcher in the Rye is about how Caulfield never grows up (the introduction has him talking to a psychiatrist and in the ending he mentions that he is in an “institution”). If you read it carefully, you should be able to recognize that Caulfield wants to protect his imouto’s innocence. But as you’ll see in the ending, he decides that’s impossible but finds himself smiling. Caulfield ends his narrative by implying that it is difficult to share experiences and shows some irrational resistance (“Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”) to mature.

I personally don’t like the novel, but it’s a novel that sticks with me. I am forever enamored with ambitious, original ideas even if the writing or characters stink. Here is a novel that still boldly stands and says, “Innocence is great and maturity sucks,” without pandering to critics and readers. Its controversial use of colloquial speech and criticism of psychoanalysis ticked critics off; readers would like to see Caulfield mature since that is how coming-of-age novels work — but no, the novel leaves it ambiguous whether he succeeds in maturing or not.

The ending, I hope, will strike you one of those ponderous chords like it did to me when I first read it. It will probably make you angry and frustrated. You’ll even say, “That’s not an ending! It doesn’t resolve anything! Endings are supposed to be conclusive!” If Salinger ends it normally, that would be phony. We won’t be any better than those Hollywood types who create films with diabetic happy endings. That’s why the novel must end this way.

I am sure the reason I hated this novel was that I realized the message of this novel and wanted it desperately to not be true. Maybe that’s why I still don’t like the novel.

I am still a whiny brat who has never grown up.

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5 thoughts on “Ask.fm Asks: What do you think about Catcher in the Rye? I tried to read it but can’t get to like it like many people apparently do. Am I missing something?

  1. Konb October 26, 2015 / 5:46 pm

    ;w; im sad now, does that mean Im a pussy?

    • Kastel October 26, 2015 / 5:55 pm

      the truth gave me feels 10/10

  2. CoffeeFlux October 26, 2015 / 6:29 pm

    I’m with you on that Catcher is an uncomfortable read. The feeling is amplified after finishing the novel and looking back on it. You realize that Holden, the one innocent character in a corrupt world, is in fact one of the most unlikable characters. This juxtaposition is intended to force you to really think about the novel’s central themes, and to that end I think it excels. You aren’t supposed to enjoy the novel; if you did, that would undermine its message. The novel is a thorn in your side, much like its titular character is for many others in the novel itself.

    On that note, I think the most important thing for the asker to realize is the lasting impact of the novel. You can find its touch on a variety of contemporary works, from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Perks of Being a Wallflower”. In fact, many of the literary techniques it employs still run strong in modern works like “Harvest”, which I just recently finished (and more people should read!) If you read contemporary literature you can’t escape it, and thus it’s well worth reading.

    • Kastel October 26, 2015 / 6:55 pm

      Not to put the asker on a spot, but yes I think the attitude of the asker reflects the way most of us, including myself, view art. We want to enjoy ourselves and embrace the beauty. But then we forget what the work is trying to express.

      I am reminded of the preface to Dorian Gray, specifically:

      “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

      Catcher in the Rye is basically that. The more you dive into the novel, the more you want to go up the surface and take a breath of air. But no, you can’t stop. You keep on swimming downwards and see all the symbols floating around like jellyfishes. There are no treasure chests that invoke catharsis to be found. This is not a satisfying novel. You come out of the novel feeling like you’ve drowned yourself. That feeling will never disappear.

      It is the “lasting impact” you say that is important to all of art, not just novels. Many of us love endings that give you “feels” or whatever, but “feels” end quickly. Catcher in the Rye haunts us for the rest of our lives, whether we like it or not.

      • czach October 27, 2015 / 1:14 am

        As a person who was opposite, in that I loved Catcher when I was young and empathized with Holden, the main thing is probably how Salinger has this magical way of infusing narration with voice. Its ‘true’ stream of consciousness (or I should call it ‘stream of sincerity’) rather than the experimental artistic poetic type that occurs in the modernists. I think the only writers that really peak at this are Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Salinger and David Foster Wallace (but more of his essays). Of course nowadays I prefer Franny and Zooey to Catcher (that’s when he really starts abusing the italics to make what is essentially a lecture into an amazing story/soliloquy/radio drama), but reading Catcher while listening to The Velvet Underground and Nico when I was like 14 (woah so edgy) was probably what got me really into reading seriously.

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