Friday, October 22, 2010

Catcher In The Why?

Every year I like to pick up one or two "classic" novels -- books that are commonly praised and studied but which I haven't yet had the pleasure of enjoying. Sure, there are tons of great new books coming out each year, but there are still countless backlist and classic titles that I haven't yet experienced. I know I'll never catch up and read them all, but it's fun to make an attempt to go back and check them out.

One of my best experiences with this was almost ten years ago when I picked up Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. This is a book I studied back in Grade 9 but which I didn't finish reading -- nor did I particularly care for it at that age (when I was, perhaps 13 or 14)

But when I read it in my late twenties I was blown away with just how well-written it was, just how great a book it was. I kept saying: "No wonder they MAKE us read this novel. It's a truly great read."  Then, of course, I thought back and considered how I wasn't able to appreciate it at an earlier age. Was it because I wasn't yet ready for it and couldn't enjoy a really well written novel with a compelling tale, intriguing characters and interesting underlying themes of morality, spirituality and synchronicity, or simply because it was forced on me?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is another one of those classic books that is often studied in English classes; but it is one that I never studied or read.

So I picked it up recently to give it a go.

I was sadly disappointed. Both with the book as well as with how deflated my expectations were.

My reaction to this novel was:  "Really?  This is a classic?"

The main character, Holden Caulfield, was not only not sympathetic, but he was pretty much a jerk. The voice the story is told in is an annoying snotty-faced punk's POV.  Okay, I'll give Salinger credit for that, because he properly captured the essence of the self-directed and desperate search for identify and belonging POV of the teenage years, if that is what he was shooting for.

But if this novel hadn't been a highly praised classic, I likely would have put it down after half a dozen pages. The story is basically a couple of days in the life of an annoying jerk of a young man that doesn't really go anywhere or do anything but do a heck of a lot of navel gazing. There's too much repetition in the voice of the narrator, more so than to simply sprinkle the book with the angst and frustration of the main character, nor to get across his youth -- for this reader, it simply got in the way of my attempt to enjoy it.

Yes, I know, this novel is praised for it's accurate portrayal of angst, rebellion and confusion, and I'll admit that it has that, but, my God, for a short novel (just over 200 pages) it seemed to drag on way too long.  It strikes me that the same result could have be derived through a short story without having to make the reader suffer through 200 pages.  Or perhaps this reader has become conditioned to actually have to enjoy the story or at least sympathize with the main character to get through a novel-length work. (Short stories require less of an investment of time, so perhaps I'm more likely to hang-in there if the main character isn't so likeable)

Or maybe I'm so out of touch with my teenage self that I can no longer appreciate the point of view Salinger wrote the novel in. I am a middle-aged man, after all. But, in many ways, I still often feel like the awkward and geeky 17 year old (just many years older, with a lot more responsibility on my shoulders and a lot less hair on my head), so perhaps I'm not all THAT out of touch. After all, when I've read other novels and stories featuring teenage protagonists, I'm able to sympathize with their POV quite easily.

In any case, I'm glad that I read this novel, even though the experience wasn't all that enjoyable. What does THAT say about this book loving nerd?


Cait said...

It's funny- I just had this same conversation with my Dad earlier this evening!

I feel like the reason Catcher in the Rye is a classic is because it was one of the first novels to capture the POV of a modern American teenager. Have there been books written since then that have done it better? Very likely, but they are all building off what this book started. Also, as I understand, this book was fairly controversial at the time so I assume that that alone drew it a lot of attention as well.

Although I enjoyed Catcher in the Rye, there are plenty of classic novels that I just don't really enjoy. I wasn't a huge fan of Brave New World. But really that's just because there have been similar novels since then that I think are better. Can I appreciate that the concepts in BNW were probably pretty mind blowing for it's audience at the time? Yes. Can I appreciate that it blazed the trail for other sci-fi novels? Yes. But that doesn't mean I enjoyed reading it.

Mark Leslie said...

Thanks for the comments, Cait. Yes, I'm probably overlooking the huge controversy that surrounded when the book first came out, and how ground-breaking it likely was at the time.

I'll also admit that there were poignment moments in the book that likely influenced other writers and still do.

And I haven't actually read Brave New World (but it's on my short-list of one of those classics I really want to read, particularly since I've read many other novels that were likely standing on the shoulders of that one)

lime said...

it's a classic i never read either. i feel i can skip it now, lol. there are some classics i dearly love and others i've had a similar reaction to. i think you and cait both have good points.

steph said...

Interesting! It's been eons since I read Catcher in the Rye (when I was a teen), and I loved it back then; it was one of my favourite books. Of course it was.

But now, if I were to read it again, would I still love it or would I feel the same as you did? Might it be the opposite situation you had with Fifth Business?

I'm curious but at the same time wary. I don't want to feel the same as you did! My friend reread Anne of Green Gables. Whereas she'd adored the book as a young adult, now she found Anne annoying. I'm reluctant to ruin my childhood faves, but at the same time, there are those that would not be ruined by a rereading, no matter at what age, and those are the ones I should keep on my shelves. Those are the ones that I can say truly belong there for good reason, not just because they're considered canonical.

steph said...

Responding to what Cate said, for me it depends on why it was controversial. Was Catcher controversial for more than its enthusiastic use of "godddamn"? I actually don't know.

Since it's likely considered a classic now more for the response it garnered then, when this would have been a unique voice—if this book was indeed a trailblazer—then I too can see why it's considered important. But it has to be, for me, a trailblazer for more reason than it's use of swears.

Mark Leslie said...

Interesting, Steph. I understand your fear of revisiting a classic you loved as a child.

Two that I loved when I was younger I re-read as an adult, both held up quite nicely - The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. I loved them as much, if not more, when I re-read them as an adult. (Of course, they're sci-fi classics rather than literary tales, but in my eyes, classics that the genre has built upon)