Thursday, 25 October 2018

I Get It

Reading through some of the one-star reviews of this book I was interested to note that a lot of people, twelve percent in fact, left comments like: 'ramblings of a teenage drunk', 'pile of rubbish', and my personal favourite: ' a blasphemy to the beauty of the English language'.  It was variously described as dull, tedious, repetitive, and lacking any kind of plot.  But the most frequent complaint was that it was disappointing.

When a book is described as a classic it's difficult not to expect something great.  Something that will perhaps change your perspective on the world.  If you read it, looking for this something and fail to find it, then, yes, it will surely disappoint.

It's happened to me and it's happened to you (I'm assuming).  We've all been disappointed by classic reads at some time or other.

The Catcher in the Rye is just one of those books.  You love it or hate it.  You find treasure or you don't.  You get it, or you don't get it.

This one, I got.

Now I have to say what it is that I 'got'.  To the best of my ability.  Which, I can tell you, is a daunting prospect.  It really is.

If you've read J D's classic, you'll notice the style of the last paragraph - a poor mimic, I'll admit.  But the style of writing is what first strikes the reader.  Here we have a seventeen-year-old boy telling us in 1950s teenage language, about his situation - he's at a prestigious boarding school, about to be kicked out after 'flunking' his exams.  And he's talking directly to us, first person, up close and personal.

I could describe the plot, but if you want an excellent summary you can visit Wikipedia.  I'd recommend it, especially after you've read the book, for all the snippets of peripheral information about the author.

What I want to say, to try to say, is why this book is one of my all-time best reads.

It's true that Holden Cauldfield (I love the strangeness of his name) is lazy, reactive, immature...but he is also hanging on to what he sees as 'real', what is not 'phony'.  His thoughts and interactions with other people are often superficial, his conversations repetitive, but mixed in amongst the simmering chaos of his life there are moments of astounding beauty.  It's like walking through a field of mud and finding something precious.  I don't mean something like a diamond or a wallet.  Rather consider coming across a baby bird, injured and near death.  Holden would pick it up, carry it away, make it well, if he could. 

Now, I've made the book sound soppy, but it's not.  True, it's nostalgic.  It takes you back.  Makes you remember feelings you had as a child growing up.  Holden Cauldfield reminds you that in a world of  fixed pathways through education, to a career and happiness, there are stop-offs along the way that blow any plan out of the water.  For him, it's where the duck go when the pond freezes over, the essay he wrote about his dead brother's baseball glove, the record he bought (and accidentally broke) for his sister Phoebe, or the trips to the Museum of Natural History when he was younger (he notices small changes and wishes things had stayed exactly the same).  These moments stand out amongst the mud and daily grind to nowhere like a beating heart.

As he gravitates towards home and his beloved younger sister, Phoebe, he follows a young boy walking carelessly in the gutter along a busy street.  He feels the boy's parents are unaware of the danger he is in.  Then, the boy begins to sing:

"If a body catch a body coming through the rye,"

which strikes Holden with its simple joy.  It also leads him to formulate a plan - a plan based on his understanding of the above line, which is a misquote from Burn's poem.  Holden sees himself standing at the edge of a field of rye where children are playing and shouting near a cliff edge.  As they run and play, unaware of the danger, Holden will stand guard and catch them when they fall.

I must admit, as I came to the final pages I wondered how on earth there could be a satisfying ending to a book that covers a three-day period in the life of a moody teenager.  The final paragraph, for me, is genius.  See what you think.

Whether or not you get the punch to the stomach and the shock to brain from these moments of insight, of clarity and simplicity, is probably down to how you are wired.  I don't want to sound smug or superior - there's plenty I don't get about a whole plethora of things.  I just can't help being amazed by this particular book and grateful to J D for writing it.

Here's the link if you want to give it a try:  Catcher in the Rye


  1. Oh wow, if this doesn't bring back memories. I won't say how many decades it's been since I read it. lol I didn't realize it was controversial, such a pity? Thanks for reminding me, I should reread it again. Wonderful blog, btw.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Renee. And glad you like the blog. Hope you get round to some more of Holden's adventures - and maybe tell me how it hits you second time around.