Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why is this book a classic?

I was one of the lucky ones who managed to make it through high school without having to read The Catcher in the Rye. However, I was recently challenged on J. D. Salinger's "magnum opus" and, having never read it, I could not respond other than to say, "Don't know." So in the interest of informing myself on the subject, I read it and as I did so, the first thing that popped into my head was this quote from the "Current Communist Goals", a list read into the Congressional Record in January of 1963 by Florida Democrat A. S. Herlong, Jr., based on the research of Cleon Skousen in The Naked Communist:
25. Break down cultural standards of morality by promoting pornography and obscenity in books, magazines, motion pictures, radio, and TV.
There is so much wrong with this book, that it can't possibly qualify as anything like a classic on the strength of Salinger's writing skills alone. In brief, The Catcher in the Rye is a tale of Holden Caulfield, a neurotic, narcissistic sixteen year-old from an upper crusty family who flunks out of prep school and spends a night of debauchery in New York City. Holden has a penchant for calling everyone a phony, yet it soon becomes obvious that he's the biggest phony of them all. The narrative style is first person, so the reader is forced to endure Holden's puerile blather throughout the entirety of the work. The fact that his younger brother died tragically is supposed to add a level of pathos to the story, and I suppose provide an excuse for why Holden acts and thinks the way he does. But in my opinion, the uninspired plot is totally coincidental to what made this book "special" and how it has become a "must read" for every high school student.

This book was (and is) a vehicle for introducing young people to obscenity and "alternative lifestyles"--and making them seem normal, at least in comparison to the occasionally judgmental but always hypocritical main character. The amount of pointless vulgarity and blasphemous language contained in The Catcher in the Rye is so overwhelming, even by today's standards, that the reader quickly becomes numb to it. It was apparently one of the first mass market books to incorporate the phrase "f--k you", and no doubt that made it immediately attractive to those with an agenda of breaking down societal standards.

Salinger is a sloppy writer, with stream-of-consciousness tangents flowing out in every direction. Some of these are meant to be profound, I suppose, but their profundity never reaches above frat-house-level philosophy. Some might say that this was Salinger's point--to recreate the ribald banter and egotistical musings of upper-class teenagers. But to what end? Such talk is trite and tiresome in person, let alone when encountered in the written word.

On the whole, there is nothing inspired or inspiring about The Catcher in the Rye. I can't imagine how anyone who reads it will come away with any positive insights into life, the world, or the human condition--negative ones abound, of course. Recalling how naïve I was as a teenager, I can readily imagine the kind of impact a book like this might have had on me, particularly in light of the false gravitas English professors are wont to bestow upon the works they select for study.

And that brings us back to the question of how this book achieved such status that seemingly every American high school student must be exposed to it. Again, a scanning of the Current Communist Goals may be instructive:
17. Get control of the schools. Use them as transmission belts for socialism and current Communist propaganda. Soften the curriculum. Get control of teachers' associations. Put the party line in textbooks.
Old Uncle Joe knew what he was doing, apparently.

If you are a young person whose professor has selected The Catcher in the Rye as part of your course work, you should take it as an insult. Imagine as you read that this is how your professor views you and everyone in your age bracket--as moody, ill-spoken, amoral losers who awkwardly seek sexual encounters and intoxication at every turn without a second thought. If you don't view yourself that way, I would encourage you to read something better, more positive, and more uplifting--like the book that would have been my favorite as a teenager had it been available at that time: Angels in Iron.

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