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The Catcher in the Rye: A small book report

I have this list I add and subtract to occasionally: “books I want to get.” I add them as I want them, I subtract them as I read/buy them. One of the was The Catcher in the Rye. 

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Honestly I had no background going into this book, no preconceived ideas, no information about it other than it was a classic, and that it had been banned at some points, though I didn’t know why. As I started to read, I was bewildered by the style and flow of the book. The main character, Holden Caufield, is a dissatisfied, lonely, depressed seventeen year old casually having a conversation with the reader, and telling him or her the story of that one time he was kicked out of school (again) for not applying himself, so he just cuts out early and does his own thing for a couple of days, before going home for Christmas holidays. Basically as I read the main thought in my head was “Where the heck is this going, anyway?”

Holden tells the story just like a seventeen year old punk would, with liberal “goddams” and “sonofabitches” thrown into pretty well every sentence. His character has two sides juxtaposed over each other – a despicable side, and a noble side. He is prone to the typical vices of adolescence (sex, alcohol, lying, rebellion, laziness, cowardice), but he spends a lot of time paying attention to common courtesy, like picking things up for old ladies, or tying the laces of a child. He despises “phonies,” “jerks” and “perverts” (as well as a million other things), but he undeniably has these very same characteristics: spuriousness, cruelty, licentiousness.

So, as I read and read, until about three quarters through the book, I couldn’t figure out the point of the book and my dissatisfaction grew. Where was the climax? Things just kept happening to make Holden feel lonesome and depressed. When would it ever end?

Finally, there was a slight alleviation in the tension. In a conversation with his sister, Holden shed a wee bit of light on his inner conflict by revealing his true ambition. His little sister, Phoebe, asks him what he wants to be. He replies,

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like-“

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”

“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” (pg. 173 in my copy)

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I saw that Holden, an imperfect guy, in an imperfect world, just wanted to be genuine, not insincere. He just wanted to be kind, not mean-spirited. He wanted to be noble, not perverse. If he could be anyone, he’d be “the catcher in the rye.” The quiet, persevering savior of innocence.

But in real life, he saw no nobility in the world, just disappointment. And if he couldn’t have nobility, he would choose escape. He ran away from school, he ran away from people he didn’t like, he ran away from what scared him. He even contemplated running away from life. “I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.”

Later, as he talked with a friend and former teacher of his, his teacher said to him,

“I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but I can very clearly see you dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause.” He gave me a funny look. “If I write something down for you, will you read it carefully? And keep it?”

He then wrote down a quote:

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” (pg. 188 in my copy)

I think that that note was the climax of the book. You could argue with me about it, if you want. But Holden’s conversation with his teacher felt like a turning point, to me. I felt like I finally was seeing Holden from a better light, when someone else was seeing him in the book. The entire book is from Holden’s perspective, you see. And as you know, we all see life through a certain lens. And Holden saw life through a phony lens. But his teacher saw him clearly alright, I think.

He said, “Once you get past all the [disappointing people/experiences], you’re going to start getting closer and closer – that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it – to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know.

He then encouraged Holden to be encouraged and inspired by educated and scholarly men, brilliant and creative men who have gone before, and in turn encourage and inspire the disappointed and hopeless ones that come after him. He emphasized that education hones and refines brilliance and creativity. I think that if I were to wheedle a moral out of this story, that’s the one I’d take. I don’t know if Holden ever really gets it within the covers of the book though. Perhaps when he grew up a bit he would understand a bit better.

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I ended up really liking the book, but not because it made me feel nice. It made me feel… itchy… Maybe.. disturbed? It made me feel motivated to write a book report about it until 1am, anyway. It made me wonder mostly about how I could talk to someone like Holden in real life. How could I teach someone like him? How could I be his friend? How could I be good to him? Those are the questions that are itchy and disturbing. There seems to be so much in the balance!

The thing that’s in the balance is this: When speaking to someone who is blind to the truth (as Holden was, in many ways) you stand on a precarious precipice. On one hand, you run the risk of being a phony: giving in to what seems “nice” to put a good face on. On the other hand you run the risk of being a jerk: honesty without tact or kindness. Hypocrisy vs. Pharisaism. The thing in the balance is pure truth delivered clearly, received without distortion. God, teach us to speak truth with love! That is a thing I want most in the world, and this book made me feel ravenous for it. For lovingly spoken truth, heard with open ears and a hungry heart.

I suppose I must say, in light of all that, that it’s a pretty good book. I’m glad I read it.

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