Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

Some have hailed it as “an American classic,” others “an example of a perfect book.” No matter who you are, The Catcher in the Rye will take you by surprise as you follow recent expulsion victim Holden Caulfield as he travels around New York City with just his thoughts in hopes of finding excitement, happiness, and a reason to live his life.

A recent World War II vet and D-Day participant, author J.D. Salinger set his heart on writing short stories, which were published in magazines, namely The New Yorker and became wildly popular. Despite his success as a short story writer, Salinger his mostly remembered for his work on Catcher in the Rye, which he has said to have been “almost autobiographical.”  He was born in New York City, the setting in the story, in 1919 to a half-Jewish, half-Catholic family. He chose a setting that was familiar to him as a teenager. Also, Salinger was the captain of his fencing team much like Holden. After flunking out of a prestigious junior high school in Manhattan, Salinger’s parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy, which was later used as a model for Pencey Prep, the school Holden comes from. Salinger is first published in 1948 when The New Yorker published “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He became an instant hit as a writer and produced many other short stories, but it isn’t until three years later that The Catcher in the Rye is published. After the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger began the process of becoming a recluse and generally not leaving the house or interacting with anyone outside of his immediate family.

The story begins when Holden Caulfield fails out of a prestigious prep school in upstate Pennsylvania. Rather than going home for the winter and telling his parents, Holden decides to take his belongings to New York City in hopes of finding inspiration and purpose. He spends most of his time exploring and observing the city and its people, criticizing and analyzing almost everything he sees. Holden is afraid of growing up, afraid of losing his innocence and making the transformation into adulthood, so he finds excuses to still act like a child. He’s a troublemaker, but Holden exploits these teenage delinquencies and goes on joy rides, finding thrills, and in the process, himself, in prostitutes, alcohol, and freedom.

If you’re an avid reader of romance, action, or any book with a climax, this book may be frustrating for you to read. Over the entire course of the book, nothing of pure significance happens. In fact, nothing of any significance at all happens, yet it entrances you and pulls you in and makes you want more, and to be completely honest, I can’t tell you why. But the fact that this book is being debated and talked about and is still read to this day can attest to my statement. For being a dropout and teenage delinquent, Holden explores adult ideas and exhibits more wisdom and intuition than most people his age or otherwise. After getting through the excessive use of adult language and hypocrisy, it is clear that Holden understands more about other people than they understand about themselves, and often uses the flaws he sees in other people as a tool to find things inside himself. The constant use of inappropriate language is to plant the idea in your head that sixteen year old Holden Caulfield is much more mature than the teenage delinquent he is played out to be. Just like the use of adult language throughout the story, the adult activities Holden takes part in are there to show that while you’re reading the narrative of a sixteen year-old wisecracking boy, you’re also reading the narrative of a mature, cynical man who has dealt with life and its obstacles, and has learned from them.  

Your entire time reading the book will be spent waiting for something extravagant and spectacular to happen, and it never does. The book ends, the lights fade, and without even knowing it you have enjoyed what is said to be one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. To enjoy and understand this book completely, you must read it more than once. You can’t expect too much of it, because at first you will be disappointed. Only later will you realize how much the book spoke to you. You have to be okay with nothing happening. No aliens, no zombies, no explosions or unbelievable love stories, just a boy in New York City trying to find himself through sex, alcohol, and freedom.

Title: The Catcher in the Rye

Author: J.D. Salinger

Publisher: Little Brown and Company

Date of Publication: May 1991

Pages: 214

Genre: Realistic Fiction

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