J.D. Salinger’s death this week has saddened me. He was 91, and I know we’d all be fortunate to live that long, but it’s still sad to know that a powerful voice has gone out. I’ve only ever read The Catcher in the Rye of his works, though I’d like to read more (and always have, but somehow haven’t yet). The rest of this post may contain spoilers, so if you haven’t read it yet, skip down to the questions in bold.
I first read Catcher in my junior year of high school, when I was a pretty good example of a teenager convinced that everyone in the world is a phony. My best friend at the time was studying abroad in Germany for the year, my first boyfriend had got together with someone else, and in general I felt sort of emotionless, trapped in this world I didn’t really want. I hated high school. Holden Caulfield didn’t save me, that took college, but he brought a new perspective into my life, and as a result I loved the book. I got a copy of my own, intending to reread it.
It took four years and a children’s lit class for me to read it again, and I was worried about my reaction. I was older and I’d been through a lot. In fact, my entire life changed in those four years, so much so that it was virtually unrecognizable. My brother had died in the most horrific six month period of any of our lives, I had a steady boyfriend and spent summers in England, and I lived in a different state with different friends and different needs. I wasn’t a teenager and certainly not one that wanted to rage against the world. And it was from that perspective I read the book, and I still loved it even when almost everyone in the class couldn’t stand Holden and his complaining. Why? Because his brother died too. His brother died, and it messed with him, and I could understand him in a totally different way. I could see how it could change his life and make him a cynic and a whiner, because I could have slid that way myself. I could see why he wanted so badly to protect his sister – and all children – more than ever. I would bet that no one else in that class had ever lost a sibling and they couldn’t put themselves in the book as easily as I could then. It astonished me that the class didn’t get it. Of course, every book is different for every reader, but no one picked up on what a difference that death made. The book didn’t change, but I did, and the entire book became much, much more than it was.
I also wanted to say here that maybe I was wrong, but honestly, I still really believe that was the drive behind Holden’s behavior, and so I can’t bring myself to.
Has a book ever changed for you as your perspectives on life changed? Have you ever felt radically different about a book than everyone else?