Re-reading Catcher in the Rye
By Michael Caines
Here's an early warning for you: in next week's TLS, Bharat Tandon reviews On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – a retired professor's "personal experiment" in revisiting everything from childhood favourites to "canonical works of literature she was supposed to have liked but didn’t". Surely you can think of a few of those?
I'm reminded of a TLS review that mischievously began like this:
"Could it be that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not a very good play? It has three scarcely related actions — the bumpy course of young love, the difficulty (especially if you are an ignorant bumpkin) of staging a play, and a climate-changing stand-off between the King and Queen of the fairies. Its characters are walking contradictions. . . ."
Patricia Meyer Spacks has another supposed classic in her sights – The Catcher in the Rye.
"The Catcher in the Rye resembles Lucky Jim both in import and its early and later effects on me. A work that has never lacked an admiring audience, it had trade sales of 425,314 copies in 2010 alone, my editor tells me – along with who knows how many sales for high school and college courses. Salinger’s death generated an outpouring of testimonials about how much the book had meant to individuals. As for me, I loved it when I first read it and taught it with enthusiasm at Wellesley. And I loathed it when I reread it."
There is no end to the loving or loathing of J. D. Salinger's novel, which seems to have an enduring power to divide, like literary Marmite. Some hate its style (Holden Caulfield's, really, as aped by the New York Times reviewer, James Stern). Others love Holden's view of the world. A lazy look online suggests that it's still all right with the kids but not with Page Plucker. The TLS said this:
"Mr. Salinger is well known in America for his short stories and has not achieved sufficient variety in this book for a full-length novel. The boy is really very touching; but the endless stream of blasphemy and obscenity in which he thinks, credible as it is, palls after the first chapter."
And ends on this delightful note:
"One would like to hear more of what his parents and teachers have to say about him."
But then a little later, another reviewer could refer to the book as "that most haunting novel of adolescence", and its influence (perhaps the influence of its popularity) could be detected in the work of other novelists.
You'll have to (at least) Google-read a couple of pages to see how Spacks puts her own differing reactions into the context of her life as a reader, re-reader and teacher, and makes more of them than just another contribution to the battle between the novel's admirers and detractors (the detractors should include anybody thinking of writing a novel themselves, apparently).