High School Classics Worth Reading: 'The Catcher in the Rye'

Pick up J. D. Salinger’s teenage classic as an adult. No, really, it’s worth it.
By Kevin Smokler
March 2013
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“Practical Classics” includes 50 essays on high school literature and what books are classics worth reading again as an adult.
Cover Courtesy Prometheus Books


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Rediscover the great books of your youth and what they have to say about your life now. Remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and Pride and Prejudice at school? Would you read these high school classics again now that no one is grading you, just for your own enjoyment? Practical Classics (Prometheus Books, 2013) helps you do just that. Author Kevin Smokler guides you through fifty books commonly assigned in high school English classes and shows you why you'd probably enjoy rereading the same books as an adult. Smokler's essays on the classics—witty, down-to-earth, appreciative, and insightful—are divided into ten sections, each covering an archetypical stage of life— from youth and first love to family, loss, and the future. The following excerpt is an argument for re-reading The Catcher in the Rye as an adult. No, really. Smokler explains that Catcher is one of the classics worth reading, worthwhile to understand Holden Caulfield’s perspective to understand teenagers—or just one New York kid grieving over his brother.  

You’re rolling your eyes right now, aren’t you?

The Catcher in the Rye? Are you nuts? Who would read that book again? Who would want to feel like their angry ninth-grade self again? Do I need to remember when I actually wore a trench coat and red hunting hat for about eight days? Maybe glance at a few pages before loaning it to my high-school-aged niece. But read it myself as an adult? Again? Only the sad and crazy do that. The Catcher in the Rye belongs to your alienated youth. If you need it later on, it’s time to grow up and stop fantasizing about killing celebrities. 

Now unscowl your faces, good people. Objections noted. In fact, I had more trouble deciding if Catcher in the Rye belonged in Practical Classics than any other book. Catcher, it seems, belongs to a small group of high school classics with a built-in self-destruct button. No one reads Atlas Shrugged past age twenty-five unless they voted for the Objectivist candidate in the last election. No one pores over Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet once they can legally pour a glass of whiskey. And everybody reads The Catcher in the Rye in high school, but no one sees reason to afterward. I decided early on that both boxes had to be checked for the book to qualify as not just a classic but as a “Practical Classic.”

Hell, even a nostalgic fool like me hasn’t read the novel since high school. I’ve grown up, but since 1951, Holden Caulfield has not.

Now I’m scowling.

In 2010, its author, J. D. Salinger, died at age ninety-one. Those are the times that try a nostalgic fool’s soul. I could not find the old edition of the book my mother gave me (with a Norman Rockwell–style cover showing Holden Caulfield at Grand Central Station) when I was fourteen, so on a Sunday afternoon, I went to my neighborhood bookstore, picked up a six-dollar mass-market paperback (with the line drawings of carousel horses on the cover), and read it over two and a half cups of coffee and a second scone I should have avoided.

There are reasons to give Catcher in the Rye another go—even if you are now the person who worries about having a Holden Caulfield who asks to borrow the car. Scan this list and see if any of the sen­tences in bold speak to you. Focus on those and do what you like with the rest. I will not give you a “crumby” scowl or call you a “phony.”

I recommend you give The Catcher in the Rye another look if …

. . . you are presently the parent, older sibling/aunt/uncle/mentor/friend to a teenager. 

Catcher has over three hundred one-star reviews on Amazon, most of which are by teenagers who had to read it for school. The book still sells 250,000 copies a year. I’m sure most are to teenagers or to adults buying them for teenagers. The likelihood the adolescent in your life will run into Catcher is high. There’s a decent chance they will hate it.

These kids on Amazon don’t hate the book because it’s been forced on them. Their reasons sound more like this:

Hi, I’m Holden Caulfield . . . I get kicked out of school because I’m a rich preppy spoiled brat, and I lose all my money as I hide out in a hotel, chicken out with a hooker, and get beat up by her pimp. Who can blame him? I’m a total loser, I really am. 

Their reviews have titles like this:

Extremely Dated and Overrated!  

Wanna know who the phony is? HOLDEN CAUFIELD! 

I’m sure it was great in 1951. 

In 1951, Catcher’s publication year, Holden Caulfield—white, upper class, handsome, prep-school educated, drinking and smoking and hanging out at a hotel in New York City—probably seemed pretty damn glamorous, a kind of Eisenhower-era Risky Business. The WASP ideal that fantasy borrows from is long gone, and the teenager who reads Catcher now is more than likely to be poorer, browner, more hardworking, and more ambitious than Holden Caulfield. So whether they like the book or not, we must first accept that teenagers now could understandably view Holden Caulfield’s story as a cave painting from a distant ancestor, if they can relate to it at all.

Catcher arrived at the very beginning of the cultural recognition of adolescence. A few short years later would bring the labeling of “juvenile delinquency,” the movie Rebel without a Cause, and the early days of rock ’n’ roll. Now youth culture is a multibillion-dollar omni­presence and the world where teenagers live. Any discussion should first begin by addressing this radical change in only a half century’s time. Holden may have played hooky in New York without a cell phone, credit card, or access to an ATM. But today, a hotel clerk would be fired for checking in a teenage boy in the middle of the night and not alerting the police. Times aren’t better or worse—just really, really different.

. . . you find those differences interesting instead of frustrating. 

Someone needs to rewrite The Catcher in the Rye set in the present. Imagine if Holden could text Jane Gallagher to see if she actually wanted to talk. He’d use Bing to find out if the ducks in Central Park have a place to stay in the winter when their lagoon freezes. He could book lodgings online at AirBnB.

Catcher does not make me long for my own adolescence. But it does make me ache just a little for how slow time seems to go by in this book, how much of it Holden has to kill, and how he ultimately fails to spend just four days alone in New York without going home. I read this book in 1987, and even with Nintendo and cable TV and American Top 40 on Sunday mornings, I remember how often I felt bored, like the world had its own business to tend to and wasn’t there to entertain me.

Nowadays, I could kill four days stranded at sea if I had an iPhone. When I visit New York now, every day feels too short. I’d rather have that than boredom. But I’ve lost much of my capacity for patience and humility. Now I think the world really is there to entertain me.

Teenagers who read this book will never know this slower world. Use this book as a way to talk about this with them. Focus on change, not better-then, worse-now. If you weren’t interested in hearing about the good old days when you were sixteen, neither are they.

. . . you’d like an unconventional tour of New York. 

Visiting Holden Caulfield’s New York, particularly around Christmas like he did, will give you a daguerreotype of the city you probably haven’t seen. Your tour will include places that no longer exist (the Grand Central Station where Holden stored his suitcases was torn down in 1963; the Biltmore Hotel where he met Sally Hayes for their date fell in 1981); some that never did (the Edmont Hotel where Holden meets a prostitute is made up and so is the Wicker Bar where he meets Carl Luce, his old schoolmate); and some that remain unchanged (the Radio City ice rink, the Museum of Natural History). You’ll want to find substitutes for the missing pieces (the clock in front of the Sherry Netherland Hotel is as good a meeting place as the clock at the Biltmore) and get at least some of the novel’s great questions answered. Late December is a great time to visit the Central Park lagoon, where you’ll no doubt see that the ducks have probably moved in closer to the center of the lagoon, which freezes last. According to parks department officials, fifty years later they still receive several calls a year asking where the ducks go when the lagoon freezes over. In Holden’s time, the answer was to the East River or the Hudson. Now the lagoon almost never freezes over. “It’s a lot easier to be a duck now than in 1951,” said one official in a 2010 New York Times article.

Procedural note: A Catcher in the Rye tour of Midtown and around Central Park can largely be accomplished by walking east–west on the numbered streets. This will be much easier in Midtown than walking north–south on the congested-with-holiday-shoppers avenues.

. . . you are fascinated by the criminal mind. 

Do you watch crime shows on TV, not so much to solve a mystery but to study why criminals do criminal things? Have you read more than a few books about serial killers? If I told you Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical about presidential assassins, have you just stopped listening to me because you’re looking for tickets?

The Catcher in the Rye has played a role in at least two high-profile murders and one presidential assassination attempt. On December 8, 1980, Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed outside the Dakota apartment building in New York City, where he lived with his family. The murderer was a twenty-five-year-old security guard named Mark David Chapman, who, immediately following the shooting, sat on the sidewalk and began to read from a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Inscribed in his copy was the sentence “To Holden Caulfield, from Holden Caulfield. This is my statement.” Four months later, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was exiting the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, when twenty-five-year-old John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at him. No one was killed during the incident. Hinckley later said that The Catcher in the Rye was his favorite book, and it was among the six found in his apartment. And finally, on July 18, 1989, actress Rebecca Schaeffer answered the door of her apart­ment to find obsessed fan Robert John Bardo standing there. Bardo shot her at close range in the chest and was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye at the time of the killing.

The answer to why certain works of art motivate crime is too often dismissed as simple copycatting and misinterpretation. Holden Caulfield is a young man, angry at the world and convinced of its betrayal. Chapman, Hinckley, and Bardo contorted Salinger’s creation into a rationale for murder. The larger, more interesting questions are why and how we use art for our own purposes, and what the resulting power dynamic is between audience, artist, and artwork. The Catcher in the Rye is an iris opening onto the richness of those questions.

. . . you love a good monologue. 

Does Aaron Sorkin make your kind of TV? Does Eve Ensler or Eric Bogosian or Anna Deavere Smith make your kind of theater? If so, you are probably as smitten with monologues as I am.

The Catcher in the Rye is the subject of one of the greatest mono­logues of the modern era. Around minute twenty-three of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation (adapted as a 1993 film), the character of Paul (a con man posing as a graduate student and as actor Sidney Poitier’s son) explains that he is writing his thesis on The Catcher in the Rye. The five and a half minutes that follow, during which Paul ties together Holden Caulfield’s reliance on the word phony and the character’s fear of intimacy and human connection, murder, the modern death of the imagination, Beckett, Jung, fashion, and Star Wars, are among the most spellbinding I’ve ever seen. The three characters listening to the speech are starstruck. When Paul is done, all his listeners can say is “Indeed” and “I’m going to pick up that book as soon as I get to the airport.”

Don’t take my word for it. Watch the 1993 film, in which Will Smith, in his first dramatic role, the one that gave him a career beyond The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, delivers the monologue. Or find a community theater production of same. The speech and its use of Catcher as source material is dramatic writing of such effortless genius, it would take a drunk armadillo in the role to foul it up. But Will Smith really nails it.

. . . you have a healthy perspective about your own adolescence. 

J. D. Salinger did not have teenagers in mind when he wrote The Catcher in the Rye; he was writing more for the adult readers of magazines like the New Yorker. The character of Holden Caulfield had been appearing in Salinger’s fiction for a decade before Catcher’s publication. Stories written for both Collier’s magazine and the New Yorker would later become chunks of The Catcher in the Rye. As an army sergeant during World War II, Salinger carried pages of the unfinished novel on his person. Holden Caulfield was with him as his regiment advanced on the beaches of Normandy and later liberated the death camps at Dachau.

The images of slaughter and the death of comrades would haunt Salinger for years afterward. According to biographer Kenneth Slawenski, the author poured those feelings of loss into Holden’s pain over his dead younger brother, Allie. At a key moment in the novel, just before Holden meets Phoebe at the carousel—the redemptive climax we all remember and the first time Holden uses the words “so damn happy”—he walks in misery a block at a time uptown, at each crosswalk saying, “Allie, don’t let me disappear.”

I have read The Catcher in the Rye at least six times and never remembered that Holden Caulfield had a dead brother and how important this is to his story. And I have no idea why I didn’t remember.

Yes, Holden is lonesome and sad because it is winter and he has failed again at school and he thinks the world is full of phonies and he can’t trust anybody and it isn’t worth trying. This is being a bratty teenager. This is also exactly how we all feel when we are grieving.

That Salinger’s book has become “the handbook of the adoles­cent heart” is neither a mistake nor anyone’s fault. It just is. But far more ageless is its near-perfect capture of the numbing frostbite of loss, of how the world feels like a lie, and how it is pointless to trust or remember anything. We feel this way because the world has taken something from us, punished us even though we are innocent. We may feel this more acutely as teenagers, but Mr. Salinger wasn’t writing this book for teenagers. He was after something bigger: a story about a young man whom he used to capture the pain he felt from the battlefield and that actually nailed the ageless, universal heart in mourning.

With any hope, we’re more familiar with loss and better at grieving as we get older. Even if it hurts no less, we’ve been there and know what to do. We don’t have to hide out, rage at the world, or pretend nobody cares.

We might think that Holden Caulfield is a spoiled brat and hate the fact that exactly the wrong kinds of people have idolized him for it. Or, with enough distance and regard, we can think that maybe Holden Caulfield is just a kid in pain who misses his brother.

Reprinted with permission from Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School by Kevin Smokler and published by Prometheus Books, 2013. 


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