J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” has become such a cliché in popular culture. It’s a shame, really, because it’s an incredibly well-written novel. I’m not embarrassed to admit that it’s my favorite book of all time. And that’s saying something … anyone who knows me will tell you that I read a lot. Like, two- or- three-books-a-week a lot. A LOT.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about why this book means so much to me, and why I feel compelled to revisit it again and again. (I re-read it for the 23rd year in a row this past weekend.)
I discovered Catcher in the fall of 1989 – my senior year in high school -- during 4th period in Mr. Chet Day’s classroom, slouched behind towering bookshelves at a cluttered table piled high with ancient, rumpled tests and essays. I was his teacher’s aide that period, and also was in the morning session of his advanced senior English class. I will always be grateful for the time he spent cultivating my love of the written word that year. He is one of two teachers who helped shape who I am as a writer.
Mr. Day was a whirling dervish – brilliant, witty, eccentric and not even slightly organized. I’m not sure why he agreed to let me be his teacher’s aide – his world was in such disarray that I don’t think he even realized what kind of help he needed. It was kind of comical, actually. As a result, he didn’t give me much to do. In retrospect, being a Type A, systematic list-making fiend, I probably could have made a dent in his self-imposed classroom chaos if he’d asked.
Anyway, I graded a few papers from time to time, but I spent most of those hours tearing through novel after novel on Mr. Day’s shelves. I discovered Gatsby. Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family. Laura Wingfield’s gentleman caller. Maggie “The Cat.” And Howard Roark (The Fountainhead remains my 2nd favorite book ever). He never said so directly, but I think now that Mr. Day delighted in seeing my nose buried in the classics. In fact, he often left books out on the pock-marked table next to the discarded essays, so that I had no choice but to pick them up. A red-jacketed, paperback copy of Catcher was one of them. A world opened up to me as soon as I turned to the first page. I can’t explain it, but the feeling was overwhelming.
Every year since then, I have re-read it. Without fail. And I always read it as soon as the weather turns cold. It’s logical to me, because the book is set in the dead of winter. This past weekend, there was just enough chill in the air to put me in “the right mood,” as the main character, Holden Caulfield, might say.
When Mr. Day realized how much I loved Catcher, he gave me his copy. I still have it, though it’s torn all to hell and carefully packed away. (I finally bought a hard-bound version three years ago.) I have no doubt that the many reasons I love Catcher so much include the setting in which I read it, the familiar feel of that ratty paperback in my hands, and the nostalgia I experience whenever I read the first few lines of Chapter One.
Reading that book is like sitting down for a chat with an old friend – comfortable and comforting at the same time. Memories of sights, sounds and people resurface and bring me back to a time when I didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments and car repairs. I know the story so well, and yet I see something new in it every time I read it. Holden’s innocence and his vernacular still make me smile. And there are a few lines that always, always make me laugh. This time when I read it, I could see my son, Ethan, in the story. He’s Holden’s age now (17), and there are some eerie similarities between the two of them.
I started thinking about what my yearly ritual says about me, and I came up with a few ideas. One, I thrive on tradition. In my daily life, I maintain all kinds of traditions -- mealtime, seasonal, holiday … the list goes on. I am also not spontaneous by nature, and in order to successfully cope with change, I need an equal balance of habit and stability. If things in my life are changing, my serenity is dependent on the stuff that is staying the same, if that makes sense. I also realized that when I love, I love wholeheartedly. People, places, things, it doesn’t matter. If I love ya, I love for life.
I’m sure there are lots of other things (some probably disturbing) I could learn about myself if I spent time analyzing the book itself, and why I can identify with it so well. But I’m not gonna go there. At least not today.
Suffice to say, the 23rd read of my favorite book was just as wonderful, if not better, than the first one in 1989. And I expect that No. 24 will be no different. I’m looking forward to it already.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.