Culling The Classics: The Catcher in the Rye

It is alleged that there are over eight million books available on Eight million. That means that even if you read one entire book per day for 100 years, you'd still only be 0.4565% of the way towards reading everything that Amazon has to offer. And that doesn't include any books that might be written next year, or the year after that, or any other of those 100 years. And remember, that's ju​st Amazon. There are plenty of harder to track down old, out of print, and foreign works that would have to be added to the list as well.

Suffice it to say that, despite your very best efforts, you will not have time to read everything before you die. But if that's the case, how can you possibly know what books are worth your precious few reading moments? How do you choose? Do you go with what's popular today? There are hundreds of YA novels published every year, so strike that idea. Bestsellers? The New York Times has been running its Best Sellers list since 1942, so that's still a lot to digest. What about the classics? Aren't those important? The classics, hmm—now we're getting somewhere…

Classics are works that have withstood the crashing waves of fleeting fame and remained popular for years, decades, even centuries. Classics are literary opuses that have reputations for changing people's lives, inspiring imitation and tattoo space to no end. Classics are books that everyone is supposed to have read at some point. The only problem: they've been piling up for half a millennia, so there are still thousands to choose from. Luckily, we here at LitReactor have decided to sift through scores and scores of classic tomes in order to give you a better idea of what to mark as To-Read and what to toss aside, starting with everybody's favorite high school English requirement.

The Book

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown and Company, 1951).

The Numbers

Roughly 65 million copies sold (Top 20 all-time); Goodreads rating of 3.76; #64 (board) and #19 (readers) on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

J.D. Salinger's timeless tale of adolescent angst begins innocently enough with a young student, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, wondering what to do with himself at the end of the fall term. Holden's been kicked out of school (again), but he's still got a couple of days to kill before the letter bearing the official notice of his removal reaches his parents in their posh Manhattan apartment. Being a teenager of means, Holden decides to spend a few days in New York on his own, enjoying his final days of freedom before his parents find out about his most recent misdeeds.

You'll Love It

Holden Caulfield is one of the most interesting narrators of the last century. J.D Salinger makes post-war New York City come alive through the meandering thoughts and misadventures of his main character. Through Caulfield, the book is thoughtful, emotional, and entirely unafraid of tackling difficult teenaged topics like bullying, suicide, sexuality, and depression. If you enjoy strong narrators with unique voices, you'll love it. If you enjoy quirky stream of consciousness prose, you'll love it. If you're a huge fan of books about gifted but troubled young adults like those in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, you'll love it. If you're a teenager, you'll love it.

You'll Loathe It

Holden Caulfield is also one of the most insufferable little spoiled brats the human mind has ever conceived of. He's extremely intelligent, but he's constantly being kicked out of various boarding schools for his poor grades and bad attitude. He's a hero who is at times very hard to like, understand, or in any way connect with unless you are also a self-centered rich kid who can't figure out why the world wants you to make an effort. And he whines. A lot. Further complicating the matter, the book has no discernable plot and only the vaguest hint of a resolution. The narration wanders because the narrator wanders, and the book has as much ADD as Holden. If you prefer a clear plot and steady forward motion in your reading, you'll loathe it. If you can't stand protagonists who would generally be annoying to be around in the real world, you'll loathe it. If you aren't a fan of excessive cursing, colloquialism, or conversational narration, you'll loathe it. If you're already an adult, you'll loathe it.

Read It Or Leave It?

Unfortunately, this one's extremely tough to call. Anyone who fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye in high school will swear up and down that it'll change your life, but most people who don't read it until well after college will probably suggest it's best set aside. The real question, then, is what those in between should do. Honestly, it's skip-able. Once you've passed beyond your more rebellious years, this book has little to offer. In no way is The Catcher in the Rye absolutely required life reading for anyone who has already managed to survive into their twenties. If you're looking for a teen angst tome with which to address some lingering emotional issues, the already-moderately-outdated The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a better and more current vehicle. If you've read that one, you don't really need The Catcher in the Rye, too. Of course, if you do decide to give it a try anyway, on the plus side it's only about 200 pages, and each of its 26 chapters are mercifully short, so it's easy to break the book into digestible pieces.

Final Verdict

Teens, read it; adults, leave it; everyone else, you might as well flip a coin.

Part Number:
Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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Bobby Dee's picture
Bobby Dee from Sudbury Ontario is reading Joyland July 23, 2013 - 12:17pm

What a horrible book that was. Just bad. I gave my grade 12 english professor what I thought was an honest, reasoned review on why I did not like this book. I got back a C+, with the comment "you missed an important message."
How? How did I miss the message when the author was beating me over the head with it on every page? I didn't miss the message...the message was bullshit.

Justin Robinson's picture
Justin Robinson July 23, 2013 - 12:57pm

Why You'll Loathe It sums up exactly why I hated Rushmore as well. I've never wanted to punch a character as much as I want to punch Max Fischer.

Suzanne786's picture
Suzanne786 July 23, 2013 - 1:01pm

Same exact experience I had in high school, Bobby. Just because I don't get or agree with "the message" doesnt mean I'm an idiot and can't argue/write well...

bachunderground's picture
bachunderground from DC is reading tea leaves July 23, 2013 - 1:01pm

"Adults, leave it"? I disagree. Anyone who enjoys quality character development and quirky narration can enjoy this book. 

What I loved about Catcher was the way every encounter, however small, was given weight. Salinger uses a lot of symbolism, and Holden's responses to situations are realistic and important. He's not just some random guy being dragged along by a plot: he creates the plot. And in real life, is that not the case? There are no magical boarding schools or Manic Pixie Dream Girls to whisk Holden away on an adventure. He, like everyone else in the world, has to create his own. And if he's not very good at it, who can blame him?

I understand being annoyed by Holden Caulfield, as he is, well, annoying. But he's well-developed, and disliking a well-developed narrator is in my opinion a poor reason to discredit a book. Hell, Gone Girl is one of my favorite books, and I hated both of the main characters. It's not that Holden Caulfield is so terrible. It's the lack of another driving plot interest in Catcher that places more focus on the narrator, and if the narrator is as flawed as Holden, it's gonna drive some people away.

I'd say only skip this book if you're really plot-focused, you get put off a book because you don't like the narrator, or you demand a straightforward narrative. If you give it a chance, Catcher is an excellent read, and well deserves its place in the literary pantheon.

Gordon Rekcikssa's picture
Gordon Rekcikssa from The Free City of Greyhawk is reading City of Night by John Rechy July 23, 2013 - 2:01pm

For me, Catcher In The Rye was just okay. I first read it in tenth grade, and while I appreciated the writing, I didn't really care for Holden Caufield at all. My family was pretty poor, so all I could think was "What is this rich kid whining about?"  The next book we read was Cannery Row, and it absolutely set me on fire. Since then, I've read Catcher twice and Cannery Row dozens of times. These days Salinger just falls flat for me, but I still can't get enough of Steinbeck. Someone who can hold my interest for thirty-plus that's a great writer.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on July 23, 2013 - 3:26pm

I still read this book every year, usually in the week before New Year's. I hated it in high school; it wasn't until I was about twenty-four that I really liked it. I find it well worth rereading just for the humor in it. Of course, if you can't find humor in dysfunction you'll hate it; and in that case, your sense of humor probably has a pretty slim range. Also, if you're an adult and you swear that as an adult you've never been as confused about the world as you were as a teen and thought that a lot of things basically amount to bullshit at least once or twice, you may not be terribly honest with yourself either--or you live in some sort of strange, exclusive, gated utopia.


In the end, I say what I say about everything: to each his or her own. If you love it, cool. If you hate it, cool.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 23, 2013 - 5:22pm

@Bobby Dee - English teachers often get it into their heads that there is one specific meaning that every student must come away with when reading. Unfortunately, this is why so many students hate English class. They feel like their ideas, observations, and opinions do not matter. When I did my student teaching, my mentor teacher would always yell at me for giving kids points when the answer didn't align with what she thought was the correct interpretation. I argued that their interpretation was valid, and could be textually proven. She knocked points off of my evaluation for disagreeing with her, and took away the points I'd given the kids. She said I didn't understand the students or the material. It also used to piss her off when the kids hated the books she loved. They'd say, "this is boring" or "this has no value to me" and she would basically say it was because they were idiots.

In other words, your argument is valid. You were just unfortunate enough to get a teacher who believed you didn't "get it" based on his view of the book.

I'm not allowed to teach this book in my district because it isn't on the approved list. This is Las fucking Vegas, and our district is prude as fuck.

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day July 23, 2013 - 6:47pm

Skipable?!?! Blasphemy! My final verdict is that the author of this column, Brian, needs to stay in and catch up on Hudson Hawk, Death Becomes Her, Surrogates, Cop Out, etc, etc. Though I am willing to sanction beer and comics!

Catcher is my favorite classic and I didn't read it until my 20's. Will agree that Perks is pretty tremendous as well. And I guess I will have to check out Curious Incident.

Stradlater and his crumby razor blades and good ole Phoebe.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 23, 2013 - 8:53pm

How do you choose?

No need.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes July 24, 2013 - 4:08pm

This isn't a book I have reread, so I tend to agree with the sentiment that "adults" won't dig it. But I remember connecting with it at a really young age -- 15 or 16. The way Holden hurled the word "phonies!" around resonated with me. Yes, let me just get a room in a big city somewhere and I'll find out for myself what life is.

Many years later of course, I found out my parents weren't such idiots after all but at the time, yeah, "Catcher in the Rye" was a harbinger.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes July 24, 2013 - 4:12pm


Jennifer Siletzky's picture
Jennifer Siletzky July 27, 2013 - 8:33pm

I read it in high school, I loved it, I understood it, perhaps where I was in life was a perfect time to read it.  My room got flooded and it got destroyed, along with Perks which I was currently halfway through.  I honestly preferred Catcher to Perks, and would still swear by that any day.  Perks to me was good, but concentrated on depression while Catcher concentrated more on Holden as a symbol of the disillusionment of post-war oppulent America.  Perks was definitely about the mind of a teenager, but Salinger always spoke a little deeper to me than that.  I always saw Holden as being the symbol of the product of the American Dream.  Salinger used Holden as the messenger, and his internal thoughts weren't just the issues and problems that every teenager struggles with, but instead were symbolic of a greater attack on that damn American Dream that all American writers really love to write about.  


Jeff Sollars's picture
Jeff Sollars from Anacortes, wa is reading General Systems theory January 31, 2014 - 5:57am

My introduction to Salinger was in my mid twenties. I was working at a Deli in downtown Seattle. One day a co-worker had a problem with her motorcycle, I offer to fix it, and I did, (changed a fuse). She paid me in books, and told me I had to read them in a specific order. Raise High the Roof Beams Carpenter,( Seymore, an introduction), Franny and Zooey, Catcher in the Rye, and Nine stories.

By reading all of Salingers books in order, I was exposed to the World of Salinger. What impressed me most was his Voice. His unflinching attention to Character. He was able to capture the essence of the protagonists without being bothered by whether or not they were Good People Or Bad People, that was up to the reader. They story is what mattered most.

For most people now-a-days, It must seem like ancient history and akin to sticking a sharp stick in the eye to read it.

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