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Desert Island Novel to Read and Read Again # 2: J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" - Part I


[Click Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood" for Desert Island Book to read and read and read #1]

The Catcher in the Rye made me feel less lonely at a time (15 years of age) when all I touched, as Salinger put it in one of his Nine Stories, seemed to turn to complete loneliness. It's the reason I started writing. It was the first work of fiction to break my heart as it healed my soul. And God Bless, because this Jew interested in Buddhism had found his truest religion.

THE INFATUATION For the longest time I tried to keep my obsession with Salinger's only full-length novel to myself. Oh I would tell people I loved The Catcher in the Rye, or that Salinger was my favourite writer, but I honestly tried to not go further with it than that, to put a lid on it. I'd never have admitted that it wooed me to falling in love with New York forever, never mind the number of times I have read it, not including random flips for favourite passages. Or the fact that I somehow managed to write my Masters thesis on it, when my Masters was supposed to be in applied linguistics and what the hell did that have to do with English literature.

That first 15 year-old time was not for school, which may be the key to everything. I read it fast, just a few days and I was not (and am not) a fast reader. Holden Caufield's breezy first-person narration was so much like conversation you just zipped through. The book's famous opening:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 

The book read so fast, so easy, so true I was convinced it was pure autobiography. Not even, cause autobiography still implies some semblance of putting together, of structure, work, effort. The Catcher in the Rye, to me, that first read, and the way it stayed in my mind long after (cause I wouldn't re-read it for at least five years, afraid of tainting that first read experience) was, I was sure, simply, if beautifully, Salinger writing his thoughts and experiences in a journal. The book was a particularly fascinating series of diary scribblings. This to me was profound because it felt like the true heart of a person, which has always captured me more than the mind, and the gimmicky tricks it can play (much as a twist ending is always exciting it's not the kind of thing that'll make it to my island).

WHAT LIES BEYOND POP IN MUSIC, AND HARRY POTTER IN FICTION Digging through my big sister's records back when I was 12 (and big sisters had records to dig through) I discovered Pink Floyd, the song 'Comfortably Numb' in particular. It was a revelation - my first listen of something other than the bubble gum pop that really got me. I mean REALLY. This wasn't just music, this wasn't just wanting to hear Paula Adbul's latest hit for the umpteenth time cause it made you feel chipper or helped you not think about things; this was different, this was soul food, this was necessary - this made me think about things; shit, this was gonna bring me closer to God. Or, at the very least, help me get through grade seven, which as we all know is a crap age.

The Catcher in the Rye was not a story, not in the Narnia, Hardy Boys sense. It spoke the truth about things that I was living, that I was struggling with. The "Hardy Boys" was like Coca-cola, a treat I could have on weekends. The Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, was water. I needed it.

HIS TRUTH Holden spoke of things I'd never heard anyone say. He spoke the thoughts I had in my head. About the phoniness of people. About dishonesty and how hard life can be. And somehow, in travelling with him as he sneaks out one night to leave Pencey Prep forever (the school he is about to be kicked out of anyway) and trains it to New York, I felt less lonely. This kid was searching for something as I was, as so many kids do as they hit that age when they start to become aware of the world. And what I love is that the novel is as much about grand philosophies, on death, and what it means to live, and about losing the innocence of childhood, as it is about the simpler (or maybe more complicated) things. Like girls.

I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

Great art is about connection. At 15 I was sure I was Holden. At 23 it was Salinger I wanted to emulate most. The real point though is about what makes a book great, what makes something worth re-visiting. Holden, of course, says it better than I can:

What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

This is the end of Part I. [Click Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye Part II  for part II.] [For Desert Island Book to read and read again # 3 click Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things]