The Catcher in the Rye

Sometimes the best books are the ones you just grab off the shelves just because you feel like it.

On Friday I was shelving books in the library where I work, and I had this beat up copy of The Catcher in the Rye in my hands and I just thought to myself– why not? This is one of those books that I’ve never read that I should have read by now (I’m looking at all y’all: Moby Dick, The Sun Also Rises, and The Red Badge of Courage). So, I picked it up with apprehension. On the one hand, The Catcher in the Rye has John Green’s seal of approval. On the other hand, I was really sure I was going to have to drag myself through this novel hating every minute of it (ahem, akin to my experience with The Great Gatsby). But this copy was an old, well-loved, 1951 edition, and, in the end, it was the physical heft of the book that made me take it home.

This has been such a pleasant surprise. The Catcher in the Rye  is fantastic. I love it. If I was a good reviewer like Jessica, I’d review it. Even though it’s a classic. Instead, I’m gonna just quote one of my favorite parts, about the Museum of Natural History. This is a long quote, but I promise that it’s worth it.

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving the same blanked. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or  you’d have a substitute taking the class instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way — I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

This is poetry. This makes me understand why professors get all bent out of shape when someone says that poetry and prose are opposites. I love the way that this pivots, how you get all the detail about the Museum of Natural History and then it gives you the list of possible changes in a series of “or”s. Stasis followed by flux. And the images!! I don’t know. I just love it.

The Catcher in the Rye has also made me sad in a way– this is a novel for a younger person. This is a novel I should have read 5 years ago. I feel like the teenager who picks up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about because they missed it as a kid. I mean, I obviously still love it, but I think that if I’d read this a few years ago it would have been more powerful in my life. Maybe I’d be a prose person instead of a poetry one. Oh my god, maybe I’d be writing a thesis on Virginia Wolfe (like everyone else in my program, it seems like) instead of on Yeats and Stevens. So, as a  newly minted grown-up (hah, it feels like a joke as I type it out), I love this book, but I wish that I’d found it earlier.

It’s the exact opposite of my experience reading Anna Karenina at 15. 15 is too young to read Tolstoy. Let me just put that out there right now. And I fully support 8 year olds reading books marked as college reading level and beyond, it’s not that. Tolstoy is just so… dogmatic and subtle. Maybe it was just the type of teenager I was, but I hated that book. I literally did not finish it, and I never do this. I am a book conqueror, people. I want to go back to it and see what I can get out of it now, but I am afraid that it will defeat me again. Or that I’ll still detest it.My mom had a similar experience with Moby Dick, she read it last year and loved it after reading it in High School and hating it.

Are there any books that you tried to read too young or ended up reading too late? Are there certain books for certain parts of your life? If so, is there a list compiled somewhere that I can follow?!

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6 thoughts on “The Catcher in the Rye

  1. Catcher in the Rye is one of those books I completely missed the age train on, too. I still haven’t read it, though I haven’t given up on the idea of reading it. It’s one of those books that I drag my feet on because it’s the kind of book they make you read in school–which, don’t get me wrong, I loved reading the books they gave us in school, but now that I’m completely responsible for my own reading choices I tend to avoid the ones that I feel like I’d just be reading because it would be “good for me.” Which is probably why I didn’t finish The Brothers Karamazov when I was done with the Classic Russian Novels class I took in college.

    It’s kind of funny, though. I only read The Giver last year, which is pretty late for a middle grade type of book, but it still absolutely blew my mind, and I’m not sure it would have done if I had read it at the “appropriate” age. I love going back to well-written books I loved as a child, when I was more geared toward the substance of the work, and appreciate the form in a way I never did when I was younger.

    (Haha, sorry about my novel of a comment.)

    • I totally get that! That’s part of the reason I was so apprehensive about reading it. But, there are a few novels I know I should have read if I want to teach lit, and I feel like The Catcher in the Rye is one of them (probably Hemmingway’s crap too, but I really detest him).

      The Giver is amazing; I read it in high school and had no idea it was a middle grade book, haha.

      ALSO, RE: The Brothers Karamazov… you should finish it!! It’s badass! definitely the best Dostoevsky, except maybe Demons.

  2. I read Kindred too young. I’m sure there are plenty I read for school that I would get more out of if I reread them now, at my advanced age.

    There is a certain loss of innocence in reading that happened to me while in college. By which I mean, I can’t completely lose myself in books anymore. Even the ones that absorb me, I am still critiquing, still thinking about theme and other things that I never used to notice. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but it cuts out a whole class of books that I just can’t enjoy quite as wholeheartedly anymore.

  3. I think catcher in the rye might’ve been the only assigned reading I finished in my abortive high school career! I don’t remember that much about it, and I have ambiguously mixed feelings about it, that is to say, I remember it resonating with me as a kind of fucked up teenage boy, but then there are I guess other things about it I don’t like?

    I remember my absolute favorite bit in the book, when he says he wants to move across the country and pretend to be deaf, so that he’ll never have to talk to someone who doesn’t actually care enough to put work into it… I dunno.

    But anyways this is also apropos because I *just* finished my first re-read of lord of the rings ever! I read lotr when I was definitely too young for it (When I was ~10-11 maybe?), I missed pretty much everything great about it, and for years I would say ‘I really respect that he invented this awesome genre but lotr itself is actually pretty boring and lame’. But then, in addition to just maturing as a reader I’ve also gotten into Norse mythology and Beowulf etc, the very things that inspired Tolkien to write it in the first place, and I suspected I’d get more out of it now. And yeah, pretty much super super awesome.

    • Haha, I find it humorous that you’re having that experience with LotR. I read the Hobbit when I was 10, but Mom wouldn’t let me read LotR until I was 13. I freaking loved it then– I submit that 13 is the perfect age for it. I then reread it every year until I went to college. Last year I went back and re-read it, and it was just…. it was not what I remembered it to be. I still love it, but I have a different relationship with it I guess. I respect it and enjoy it, but I respected it more and loved it more when I was younger.

      Although! I read some Tolkien literary criticism last year (“Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics,” which was like, THE Beowulf essay for a long time [maybe still is? I’m not a medievalist]) and I was like– whoa! sir! you are badass! You should read it.

      Also, get thee to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales!

  4. Oh also I just read the Giver last year. It was pretty solid, I’m sure I would’ve liked it more back in the day.

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