[Part 2 in a series on Banned Books, in honor of Banned Books Week. See part 1 here. Details on participating in my link up here!] My copy of The Catcher in the Rye is held together with a rubber band. The binding is broken in several places, it’s dog-eared, and the cover has been taped back on multiple times. It was my mother’s copy, back from when she was teaching it in her English classes in the late 70s. There are all sorts of notes in the margins, declaring things like “pimp” in her looped, large handwriting – honestly, guys, if you knew my mother, you’d know seeing “pimp” in her handwriting is a jarring feeling.
I suppose most of my feelings on the book are centered around this connection with my mom – it’s a book she loves (thus why she taught it for so many years) and having her copy of the book is a great connection to that part of my mom that I never get to see – who she was before she had three kids.
I didn’t read Catcher in the Rye until I was in college. We read part of it (the “banned” part with the pimp and the prostitute!) in my Banned Books class senior year, and that piqued my interest enough to pick up the book. And the thing that strikes me about it is how utterly unlikable Holden Caulfield is. The guy is a total asshole! He’s selfish, he’s mostly blind to how his actions affect others, and he thinks the world basically revolves around him. Everyone else is a “phony” and he’s the only “real” person in his world.
John Green says of Holden Caulfield that the reason he, as an unlikable character, is so compelling is that the aspects we don’t like about ourselves are present in him. What we see and don’t like in Holden are what we see and don’t like about ourselves. We hope that we can learn to change, just as Holden begins to experience some change within the book. We hope that we can be redeemed from this state where we see ourselves as the only real, and we get that hope from the glimpses of vulnerability that Holden lets us see in the novel.
Catcher is banned because of Holden being a teenager in an adult world – he has a long conversation with a prostitute and her pimp in his hotel room, and apparently the presence of a prostitute is enough for parents to ban it. Which is unfortunate, as it’s one scene within a whole slew of scenes, and makes sense within the context of the book (and it’s not pornographic!).
There’s this odd concept with parents who would ban books that anything mentioning sex is automatically pornographic and therefore their child should not read it. But the message this sends is that sexual situations lack nuance and are not complex. Sex in a novel = pornography. This is a lack of critical thinking that results in books being banned and lessons from books not being imparted. The lesson of Catcher in the Rye is not that sex with prostitutes is awesome; it’s that everyone, including you, feels like a phony sometimes.
For more on Catcher in the Rye, I strongly suggest watching John Green's summer series on Catcher in the Rye: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. The above screen cap is from this video. (John also did a brief [unfinished?] series on yesterday's book, The Great Gatsby).