One of my favorite books ever was also a very controversial one. It has been frequently challenged and banned, and yet it has also become one of the most studied books in high school classrooms across the country. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing the bookseller told me when I took my used copy of The Catcher in the Rye up to the counter was “Hope you’re not thinking about becoming a mass murderer!” followed by an uncomfortable chuckle at his own joke.
Indeed, this book has earned quite a reputation. In addition to having profanity and sexual content, it was also the book that Mark David Chapman was sporting when he was arrested after assassinating John Lennon. John Hinckley, Jr., the attempted assassinator of Ronald Reagan, was also obsessed with the book.
But when I read this book, I don’t see any of that. Just a warning, spoilers follow:
When I read this book, I see a cynical 17 year old Holden Caulfield who, deep down, is just a teenager teetering between the cynical world of adults and the innocence and nostalgia of childhood. The whole point of the book is that Holden feels an urge to protect those who are innocent (like his sister Phoebe) from the world he is just beginning to discover, including covering up profanity on walls. In this way, he is “catching” them from growing up.
What’s ironic is that Holden is doing exactly what all the people who’ve tried to ban this book are doing! Without knowing it (most likely because the people who are challenging the book never actually read the book, but are singling it out for certain passages with dirty words), they are trying to ban a book whose subject is that same urge to protect. I think that’s an interesting point: often books are challenged because they are seen from a narrow perspective (a bad word, or a sexy passage) rather than their overall message.