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Revisiting the “The Catcher in the Rye”

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is one of my favorite books of all time.  I read it my junior year of high school and loved it immediately, which I can’t say for many of the other books which I was required to read (yes, I’m talking to you Silas Marner).
If you haven’t read it already, in brief, the book follows the teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield over the course of several days after he got kicked out of a prep school just before Christmas vacation. One of the reasons that I liked the book so much as a teen was because I could really identify with all of the “phoniness” that Holden could see in the world. He viewed people as shallow, fake, and depressing…he was very disenchanted with the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was a fairly happy teen and didn’t share Holden’s extreme cynicism about people and the world in general. Still, I could see where he was coming from and felt like I could relate to him. I was the same age as Holden when I read the book – 17.

Knowing that The Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorite books, I thought it curious that I had only read it once…over 20 years ago. So, I ran across it on my book shelf and decided to read it again…with a different set of eyes.

You know how sometimes you reminisce about when you were younger and would wistfully think, “Times were so much simpler then” ? Well, it struck me that just about everyone does that and, it is not necessarily that life was simpler then, it was that we were simpler then. I mean, the brains of kids and teens are not as complex as those of adults…who have many more years of life experience and growth to interpret world events, make connections, inferences, deductions, and so on. Plus, our brains aren’t fully developed until about 25, so we literally were “simpler” when we were young. So, as adults, we naturally view life with greater complexity than most kids & teens. This isn’t always a good thing, in my opinion. There are plenty of adults who get jaded by cynicism over the years and would really benefit from looking at life from a fresh perspective…through the eyes of a child.

Back to Catcher in the Rye – Here’s what surprised me most about my reread of the book. As a teen, I could (at last partially) identify with Holden’s cynicism of the world. After all, it is pretty easy to look around and find plenty of things to be cynical about! But at my second read, I was surprised to find I had a much different perspective – perhaps because I’m an adult and, I’m sure to some extent, because I’m a psychologist. Upon my reread, I didn’t view Holden as a cynic who is disillusioned by the phoniness in the world. Instead, I think he was suffering from depression. He talked about feeling sad, lonely, isolated, and several times wished he were dead. What seems so clear to me now is that Holden was depressed because his beloved younger brother, Allie, had died of leukemia a couple years prior to the events in the book. Somehow, as a teen when I read the book, I didn’t not make this connection (or perhaps I had and then totally forgotten about it. I don’t know which is worse that I never made the connection to begin with or I had totally forgotten about it!).

When I reread The Catcher in the Rye, I felt tremendously sad for Holden. The way he described his brother, his reactions to his death, his bittersweet memories of him…I can’t imagine the level of pain he was experiencing during this time in his life – not to mention how his whole family must have been devastated. I just wanted to relieve Holden’s suffering – to make him feel better.

It is kinda funny. Just as Holden wanted to be a “catcher in the rye” – to prevent  children from falling off a metaphorical cliff, losing their innocence into the evils of adulthood – I lost my more simplistic, perhaps more innocent, interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye as I read it through my adult eyes. And you know what? It is still one of my favorite books.

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