“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. That doesn’t happen much, though.” – The Catcher in the Rye
I am a huge fan of The Colbert Report (I think Stephen Colbert is basically the perfect man) and rarely miss it. Recently he did a “Colbert Book Club” episode devoted entirely to JD Salinger. (Cut to me doing a happy-dance on my couch while eating Chinese take-out.) He started with a short, semi-satirical segment about Salinger’s life (highlight: Salinger failed out of school his sophomore year “because he hadn’t read the sophomore book assignment – because he hadn’t written it yet”) and then had a really entertaining interview with writer and Salinger enthusiast Tobias Wolff. Mr. Wolff, like me, thinks The Catcher in the Rye is awesome and Mr. Colbert does not. So they had an interesting conversation about why it is or isn’t Salinger’s best work. I loved this interview because of the way Mr. Wolff described his experience as a teenager reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time: “I still remember the night I read it. I was in a play…and I kept missing my cue because I was reading this book and laughing so hard—so in his thrall—and I think when you discover the book in that way, it stays with you in that way the rest of your life.”
I know exactly what he means. I read The Catcher in the Rye my junior year of high school. We had a reading list of maybe ten or twelve books and there was a minimum number that we were required to read, but we could pick and choose whatever we wanted from the list. I don’t remember the whole list, but I do remember that most of them were icons of American literature – The Old Man and the Sea, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Native Son, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. I read every book on the list except one or two (because of course I did), but I went for the Salinger first because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I’ve read a lot of books, especially in my school-age years, that touched me in really powerful, unexpected ways. I think I’ve been fortunate in that sense – there’s something about my temperament that leaves me emotionally and mentally vulnerable to being strongly affected by what I read, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Holden Caulfield and his story caught me completely off-guard in a way that a book had never done before and few books have done since. I was expecting a very difficult, serious, potentially boring book and was unprepared to laugh so hard, to ache so much, to nod and say “yes, I know what you mean” so many times.
Catcher is a quick read and isn’t a difficult book to understand, story-wise, but it challenged me nonetheless. It’s a story in and of itself that you can enjoy purely on the surface, but there are levels underneath to comb through if you want. The experience of reading it taught me that a book can be great and accessible at the same time – iconic stories don’t have to be dense, difficult doorstops to be approached with trepidation. I read it for the second time one Christmas break in college, and I remember lying on my bed, finishing it, and then turning back to page one and starting over. I couldn’t wait to jump back into it and swim around some more. I still read it every couple of years, and it’s different for me every time. I laugh at different things, am saddened by certain moments that didn’t make me sad before, feel annoyed by parts that didn’t annoy me when I was younger.
I don’t just like The Catcher in the Rye. I have a relationship with it, one that is always evolving. I experience it in a different way every time because I am different every time. And yet every time I pick it up, part of me is sixteen again, too. I think that’s what Tobias Wolff was talking about. And I believe it’s the same with any book you read in your young, impressionable years that resonates with you in that special, hard-to-articulate way; if you discover it and fall in love with it at thirteen, or seventeen, or twenty, you will probably love it all your life. I think that love for a particular book (or any piece of art) can endure in a beautiful and—sure, I’ll say it—rather romantic way. There are books I love in a way that, while different from the ways I’ve ever loved a person, is nevertheless deep and abiding and complex. There are books that are the loves of my life. The Catcher in the Rye is one, of course, but also Slaughterhouse-Five, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cannery Row, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series…every time I read them, it feels like coming home. I have an impossibly long and ever-growing list of books I want to read, and I attack new books with great relish, but every now and then I need to return to the ones that are familiar yet still make me weak in the knees.
You may belong to the “I think The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most overrated books ever” club, and that’s all right. But I hope you’ve found at least one book that really knocks you out. It’s good for the soul. It’s always done my heart good to know that a book published when my father was a toddler could resonate with me so strongly when I discovered it 46 years later, and it’s still doing the same thing for people far younger than me. Great art, like great love, endures.
[A version of this was originally posted on my blog The Upstairs Window on 9/13/13.]