Catcher in the Rye: should it come with an age limit?

So, after the fantastic conference on Thursday, I took Friday off and stayed Oop North as my sister and nephew live in Leeds. So right now, my husband and my two-and-a-half year old nephew are rolling around on the floor, making squeaky noises and talking about going to the cinema and farting. As you do on Valentine’s Day; quite honestly I could think of no better way to spend it.

In between trumping conversations, re-runs of Groundhog Day and enough food to sink a small dinghy, my husband, Ashley, has been reading J.D. Salinger’s seminal work of fiction, Catcher in the Rye.

And… I’m not sure he likes it that much. Which upsets me.

I read it for the first time around the age of 14, and was the only person in a class of 30 doing English Literature GCSE to be encouraged to answer questions on it instead of To Kill A Mockingbird. Others asked if they should, and were roundly told no; I, on the other hand, got my best marks waxing lyrical about a mentally disturbed teenage boy struggling with the death of his brother. Make of that what you will (all I’ll say on the matter is that I write best about things that are fresh to me and I’d read Mockingbird at least seven times since the age of 9 before I came to study it and therefore my essays were probably a fraction laboured).

The truth is, I identified. I understood Holden’s irritation with real or perceived fakery.

Of course, once I got to a certain age, I never picked up the book again. My mother brought up this book I’d loved and asked why I didn’t re-read it the way I did other things, from Jane Eyre (at least until the stupid St. John bit) to my beloved Jasper Ffordes and Terry Pratchetts. And the answer is because I was afraid that once I lost the ability to identify, I would start to pity young Caulfield. Once I did that, the magic was gone.

Ashley, at almost 34, feels no such sense of magic. “Why is this considered a seminal piece of literature?” he asks, feeling a sense of sympathy but no real empathy or liking for the troubled, angry protagonist. I sighed.

It reminded me of when my sister – 30 years old at the time – finally picked up a copy of another long-time favourite that I’d fallen in love with as a teenager: I Capture the Castle. Boy, was I gutted when her sole reaction to this heartbreaking and funny book was “yeah, you really have to be a 17-year-old girl to appreciate that”. This is a woman who actually stuck out to the end of The Little Friend and actually liked it. No-one else I know – myself included, and all big fans of The Secret History – even managed to finish the damn thing. How is it the sloooooow-burning story of a little girl gripped her, but a burgeoning adult’s hopes and fears were dull?

It seems that as grown up, professional and married as I might be in reality, in fiction I’m still in my teens – and looking good for my age, of course.

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