Wednesday, February 19, 2014

5 Reasons Why You Should Read "The Catcher in the Rye" in February

My beat-up copy.
Every February since I was fifteen, I have made it a tradition to read J.D. Salinger's short novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the story about prep-school teenager Holden Caulfield, whose angsty misadventures in post-WWII New York City has been the balm to many a self-pitying teenager for generations. Anyone who has read of Holden's odyssey is on one side or the other: either Holden is a sensitive, misunderstood and confused hero of the postmodern world; or he is a sad, pathetic, annoying angry crybaby. 

Obviously, I fall into the former camp. As the half decade of reading The Catcher in the Rye have moved to a decade to a decade-and-a-half, every February I look forward to my reunion with that confused kid, who always manages to resemble me when I was at sixteen, and to some degree how I am now. New questions arise in my latest reading of the book -- new opinions, new ground on which to stand on. As I read of Holden I gain a sense of the progress (or decline) of my own maturity. 

This year I wondered: why February? Why do I feel the need to return to Holden's travails at this time of year? And, does the time of year affect your reading of The Catcher in the Rye? If you first read the book in July, when you could be swimming instead, wouldn't you find Holden just a little irritating? Perhaps February is the best time to read this wonderful book, and here are 5 reasons why:

1. The New Year's over.
We had such hopes, so many promises. We had our resolutions, our champagne, we got a kiss. New beginnings! was the catchphrase. Then somehow the days slipped by, and we realized that it was all a moment's passing. That new found confidence gets snatch away at the first act of foolishness, which, as is always the case, we should have seen coming but never did. Holden doesn't expect the friendly pimp in the hotel lobby to turn on him; likewise, February is the slap on the face to remind us we best get back to the humdrum of the year: dreaming's over.

2. Spring is so close and so far away.
There's a good day here and there, and then the snow descends. And then the rain. Winds so hard the backyard widow-makers make good on their promise. And winter has been going on since late October. 

It's true, when Holden gets expelled from his prep school and decides to hop a train and bum around New York before his parents find out, it's a few days before Christmas break. But the book is not a Christmas book. It must be remembered that Holden is retelling his madcap week in New York to us, the reader, at a later date. Christmas doesn't factor in: just winter, and what seems like a long winter at that. 

But there are sunny moments in the novel, just as there are sunny moments in winter. When the wind calms down and the sun shines, however far away. The promise of The Catcher in the Rye is that clouds so often return: the weather will turn bad. Best ride out the gloom with one who makes an art out of it.

3. Valentine's Day is for phonies
What a lousy holiday. What a crumby holiday. I'm happily married and even I get cranky on the 14th. But still I'm pulled in: to the chocolates, the flowers. Holden knows what I mean. Even though most things he finds phony, he is also attracted to them, in his cynical way. It's what makes him self-loathing, just like all of us who bought in to Valentine's Day.

4. February's a short month - "The Catcher in the Rye" is a short book
Really, this is a filler reason. So let's have a little narrative from one of my favorite parts of the book. Holden is picking up a date, Sally, at her prep school, and sits to wait for her:

I was early when I got there, so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls. A lot of schools were home for vacation already, and there were about a million girls sitting and standing around waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs, girls that looked like swell girls, girls that looked like they'd be bitches if you knew them. It was really nice sightseeing, if you know what I mean. In a way, it was depressing, too, because you kept wondering what the hell would happen to all of them. When they got out of school and college, I mean. You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys. Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong. Guys that are very mean. Guys that never read books. Guys that are boring -- But I have to be careful about that. I mean about calling certain guys bores. I don't understand boring guys. I really don't. When I was at Elkton Hills, I roomed for about two months with this boy, Harris Macklin. He was very intelligent and all, but he was one of the biggest bores I ever met. He had one of these very raspy voices, and he never stopped talking, practically. He never stopped talking, and what was awful was, he never said anything you wanted to hear in the first place. But he could do one thing. The sonuvabitch could whistle better than anybody I ever heard. He'd be making his bed, or hanging up stuff in his closet -- he was always hanging up stuff in the closet--it drove me crazy--and he'd be whistling while he did it, if he wasn't talking in this raspy voice. He could even whistle classical stuff, but most of the time he just whistled jazz. He could take something very jazzy, like "Tin Roof Blues," and whistle it so nice and easy--right while he was hanging stuff up in the closet--that it could kill you. Naturally, I never told him I thought he was a terrific whistler. I mean you don't just go up to somebody and say, "You're a terrific whistler." But I roomed with him for about two whole months, even though he bored me till I was half crazy, just because he was such a terrific whistler, the best I ever heard. So I don't know about bores. Maybe you shouldn't feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don't hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they're secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me. 

5. The Catcher in the Rye
Without being a spoiler, the critical image of the book is its title; and Holden is, at least to me, at least on windy and rainy days like today, that catcher. I think those that have fallen in love with this book and continue to do so may understand what I'm talking about, especially as the winter grinds and paces out into spring. That even if we don't see him there, it is good to know he is there. As I work my way from bratty teenager to ruckus twenty-something to curmudgeoned maturity, I know that every February, just as the winter months have almost completely worn me out to the edge, Holden Caulfield will be there to coax me back. 

And thank goodness for him.

~ James, February 2014

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