Thursday, February 4, 2010

Catcher in the Scrub Oak

Catcher in the Rye was an important book in my development as a student, thinker, writer, and a person. I read it at exactly the right time and place. Yes, reading it as an intelligent, angry 16 year old male, slightly alienated from most of his peers, you’ve heard that story before, I’m sure. I empathized with Holden Caulfield right? Of course I did. Let’s not scoff at that, though. Much of what makes Catcher in the Rye such a highly regarded classic comes from the profound way it captures and comments on that particular mindset. But, for me, Catcher in the Rye did more than  mirror my malformed adolescent angst back at me.

I encountered the novel, like many, at school. It was not, however, required reading, but part of an optional reading list, and a pretty expansive one as I recall. Of course, I knew about the novel by reputation, it’s not like at random I picked a transformative literary experience. Still, I didn’t have to read it, I chose to, and my connection to Catcher was augmented by a sense of discovery, even if I was guided to it. As strongly as the novel resonated, it resonated stronger by being my pick.

And truly, Catcher was the first novel I’d read that did resonate. Earlier works I’d read, obviously, I enjoyed, and even found meaningful, but never on the primal, connective level I did with Catcher. It was potent proof of the previously theoretical power of art.

Related to that, is the reputation in which Catcher swims. Its status as a frequently challenged book still weighed heavily on it through the ‘90s, giving it a touch of the forbidden. In reality, reading it as a teenager well steeped in R rated culture, it struck me as quite tame. I’d been asking God to damn things for me since I was 10, and sneered at everything around me since I was 13. Catcher was a welcome invitation to meditate on these things. Despite that, however, it was apparently not welcomed by all circles, and had instead come under attack. The very idea was repellent to me—it remains repellent still—and the more I read about the attacks against it, the more it became clear to me that the attackers had missed the point in a vital way. Their ignorance had become a weapon, and it was a weapon turned on me. The lesson was clear: art is potent, and demands protection.

It’s this last bit, more than anything else I got out of Catcher in the Rye, that I still carry with me most strongly, and I thank J.D. Salinger for giving it to me.

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