I didn’t read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager—but I was aware of its cultural significance long before I picked it up this past summer at age twenty-three. When I finally read Catcher I expected to feel the deep connection with the protagonist that so many had described whenever I’d sheepishly admit that I had never read Salinger’s famous novel.
From an aesthetic perspective, I liked the book’s simplicity, its ambiguous ending, and colloquial, disaffected tone. But in reading Catcher, I was surprised to feel not immediate identification or affection but something more removed.
The book reminded me what it was like to be a teenager: the defensive angst, the harsh criticism and superficial dismissal of those around you. For me, the act of reading this book as an adult in my early 20s was not the intimate connection or cultish worship I had anticipated. It was my first realization that I was starting to view my own adolescence in the rearview mirror. At sixteen I would have fallen in love with Holden. At twenty-three, I wanted to tell him to stop treating the world as his enemy.
Perhaps one of the most important things that can be gleaned from this – or any great book – is the way in which literature mirrors our own thoughts and experiences. It shows us who we are, who we were, and who we could be. Somewhat paradoxically, the alienated anti-hero has served as a touchstone for millions of teenagers and adults. It is a tribute to Salinger’s mastery that he created, with an economy of words, characters that feel entirely familiar.
Writers, filmmakers, students, and critics have been inspired by the late author’s work and will be undoubtedly for years to come. Harper’s own book, Salinger, originally published in 1961 and previously out of print, brings together great American authors (Mizener, Kazin, Hicks, Geismar, and Updike, among others) to discuss the life and work of one of their most reclusive contemporaries.
Those who teach The Catcher in the Rye are lucky to have the ability to experience it with another generation of students—who will bring fresh eyes to Holden Caufield—and through their own eyes as they get older and begin to reflect differently on their own adolescence.