I can’t remember if I’ve previously read The Catcher in the Rye, and therefore I’m not sure if I cheated when I put it here in “Books I Should Have Read Before.” When I opened it for what I thought was the first time, I vaguely remembered some details as if I’d dreamed them: Pencey Prep, the phonies, some ice skating. Maybe everyone was right when they answered my, “I”ve never read it!” claims with, “That’s impossible — they force you to.” “They,” of course, are our teachers, the ones who have made this assignment fiction for as far back as anyone can remember. I wonder if that’s why I can only remember fragments. Did I never finish it? Did I get bored halfway through because Holden, that prissy dip, couldn’t just man up and do his homework like I was every day? Whether I made it through to the end or not, it’s obvious why the book failed me then and why it probably fails so many other kids: it’s not a book for kids.

Well-intentioned English teachers have for years tried to assign books to their students that they can relate to, which unfortunately leads to books like Catcher, in all its sober and painful adult reflection, getting forced on kids simply because they are about kids. If I had to name my least favorite assignment books growing up, the ones about children may top the list (“Romeo and Juliet,” The Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn). When I was in school, my favorite assigned books were things like The Iliad because I liked to read about Ajax mowing down Trojans with a giant tree, or 1984 because it seemed to “get” the growing mistrust of systems that had started to take root in my 7th Grade mind. Kids have simple lives, fixed around the poles of school and home and weekends; kids have problems — extraordinary problems — to be sure, but the pleasures and pains of childhood revolve more around needs and wants being met (or not) and fun being had (or not). Kids haven’t yet started to map their vast interior lives the way we adults obsessively do. I think more about my goals and character flaws and life-track setbacks while in the shower any given morning than I ever did between Grades 1 and 12.

This isn’t to say that those interior lives aren’t there; a child may feel what Holden feels but most likely hasn’t thought about those feelings the way Salinger does in the book. And if a child’s thoughts are primarily occupied with what to practically do with their time in any given moment, it seems a lot to expect them to take a break and ruminate on their life direction and society’s dishonesty and false promises, especially when they have to get to football practice.

All of that is a really odd way to lead off a post on one of the most touching and lasting books I’ve ever read, but there you go, and that’s partly my point. Though no kid will ever find a mundane tale of school remotely interesting (even with the tags “dropping out of” and “rejecting social mores of”), as an adult looking back on that time with the acquired skill of introspection, Catcher dawns heartbreaking understanding on whomever is receptive enough to its characters. As an adult, one sees that the first two thirds of the book (which are about and in reaction to school) is Salinger’s necessary set-up to the wallop of payoff in the final bit, which is instead about the small decisions we make that turn our lives into what they are by the time we arrive at them, without our conscious notice. Mr. Antolini — the teacher whom Holden reaches out to in the middle of the night for a place to stay — drunkenly, ineloquently tries to sum this up for him and for us:

“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly know what kind. . . . It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I.’ Or you may end up in some business office, throwing paper clips at the nearest stenographer. I just don’t know. But do you know what I’m driving at, at all?”

The scene could be read as Mr. Antolini encouraging Holden to go back to school because, of course, that’s exactly what he’s doing — the text of his words is about the benefits of education. But a second reading shows that he’s not speaking to Holden the schoolboy; he’s addressing all of his comments to the man Holden will be one day:

“The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started.”

He’s saying that a focus on the immaterial, arguably irrelevant nettles in life is not just a distraction from what matters but a fatal one, a message that’s still true despite the vague pass he makes at Holden a few paragraphs later that possibly undermines it in the teenager’s mind. And in speaking to the falling man, Mr. Antolini gives Holden insight he can’t possibly understand until the moment when he realizes he’s falling. So, reading this at the age when one could be throwing paper clips at stenographers punches hard. Certainly, 30 is not too late to make a change, to make your life about its meaningful parts rather than struggling to define its outlines and architecture (and inevitably failing to find pleasure in that).

To double back a bit, Holden’s reunion with his little sister Phoebe in the prior chapter gives us one of these meaningful parts (one of Holden’s, anyway), and I think it’s safe to say that Phoebe is one of the main reasons the book has such lasting appeal. It’s hard not to tear up when, after all of Holden’s horribly isolated steps through the story thus far, he steps into her room and:

She wakes up very easily. I mean you don’t have to yell at her or anything. All you have to do, practically, is sit down on the bed and say, “Wake up, Phoeb,” and bingo, she’s awake.

“Holden!” she said right away. She put her arms around my neck and all. She’s very affectionate. I mean she’s quite affectionate, for a child. Sometimes she’s even too affectionate. I sort of gave her a kiss, and she said, “Whenja get home?’ She was glad as hell to see me. You could tell.

Giving Holden something so important and then watching him leave it behind at the end is brutal. This makes Phoebe’s last-minute return so relieving, as she stubbornly, resolutely drags her suitcase along to the museum in a heroic attempt to secure her brother with the kind of undeterred nobility only young children have.

Since Holden’s story is about missing the significance of important early steps, maybe it’s fitting that for many of us, the book itself is lost to the mists of childhood schoolwork. But at least it lasts. When Salinger died last year, many personal recollections centered on the book’s final moment: Holden happy in the rain, watching Phoebe going around and around on that carousel. We may have forgotten why it matters, but we’ve never, ever forgotten it.

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