At least that’s according to my 18-year-old self, if a recently unearthed high-school assignment is to be believed. I took an Advanced Composition course in my senior year, and one of the assignments was to pick a novel and keep a journal as we read. Because I was into baseball at the time, I selected Catcher in the Rye.
I think we were supposed to summarize the novel, as well as discuss characters and theme. Because I was an assiduous student, I took the task quite seriously:
“I’ve gathered information from other sources to serve as aids in my plot analyzing. Various Internet sites proved essential for my complete understanding of the story.”
Good work, kid. Nobody can dare question your research when you’re sourcing “various Internet sites.”
The assignment continues:
“I believe Catcher in the Rye addresses some deep, psychological issues that many people don’t recognize when reading the story. For example, when reading the lengthy summaries and personal commentaries I found regarding the book, there was not one mention of Holden’s parents anywhere. Holden refers to his father as a wealthy corporate lawyer who’s busy all the time and his mother as a nervous wreck ever since his little brother Allie passed away. Could it be that Holden’s parents don’t pay much attention to him? Is this why he performs poorly academically and is confused about the world surrounding him?”
Obviously, some deep thinking was going on here. I can picture myself hunkered over the keyboard of my Atari ST, the poetry flowing from my fingertips in an effortless display of academic dexterity. An A surely awaited me.
“It’s a hard thing to draw quotes and examples from the story when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.”
Or if you haven’t read the book because because you were too busy playing Tomb Raider II all weekend. But best not to mention that little tidbit in your paper.
“In general, people seem to like books with lots of blood and guts; conflicts that keep the reader in suspense and make him sigh with relief at the end of the book.”
I’m impressed that I used a semicolon correctly, but that sexist pronoun could have used a little tweaking. Put a red mark there.
“Perhaps J.D. Salinger wrote the book without any specific purpose in mind, hoping that his readers would hear what they wanted to hear through his words.”
Interesting theory. So Salinger had no thoughts whatsoever when he sat down to write? No plot outline, no theme, no characters — nothing he wanted to say? The idea was just to write down a bunch of words and hope that audiences gleaned whatever meaning they wanted to? It’s a thought-provoking argument, for sure, though it may have one or two itsy-bitsy minor holes. Not trying to be negative — I’m just saying.
What holes, you ask? Well, (A.) It’s a bullshit theory with no basis in reality whatsoever, and (B.) What the hell were you smoking?
“So when asked to describe the theme of the book, I’m hopelessly lost. Many people with better insight than me have unearthed their own morals for the story, and others have publicly mocked it through such media as newspaper editorials.”
Um, care to cite any of those newspaper articles that purportedly mocked Catcher in the Rye? Or did you just pull them out of your ass? Your ass? Yeah, I had a hunch. Don’t ask me how.
Excellent work, kid. A gold star awaits you. Please continue with this poetic foray into literary criticism.
“If a theme does exist to this book, it is not a clear one. No matter what conclusion I draw about the tale, it can be hotly debated by people with a similar interest in the story.”
That’s right — those hot debates about Catcher on the Rye can be downright dangerous. But that’s only if the participants have “a similar interest in the story.” As opposed to, you know, ones with a different interest in the story.
“I know it must sound like I’m giving up.”
Actually, kid, I think you gave up on page 1. But that’s only because it was nine on Sunday night, and this paper was due first thing Monday morning. Which probably explains the haphazard, I-don’t-have-a-frickin’-clue tone that emanates from the piece.
“I know how easy it is to say that the plot was too complex to successfully analyze. However, I am at a loss of words for this topic.”
Well, you’ve written a lot of words so far. It’s just that you haven’t said anything coherent. And judging by this blog, some things never change.
“I am happy to say that the author did not, in fact, have a specific purpose in mind when he wrote this novel. I don’t think there was any subtle message he was trying to hide carefully between the lines. I just believe that this was a novel that was written with the sole intent to entertain, that’s all. A good story doesn’t have to have a moral behind it, although the better ones often do.”
Kid, quit embarrassing yourself. You couldn’t detect the moral in a Berenstain Bear book.
“It’s just that Catcher in the Rye doesn’t fit into any of the normal categories that have been established to differentiate between books. It’s not a mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy or adventure novel. It’s just a tale about an everyday kind of kid who has some emotional problems. It’s realism in its purest form. I think people are looking for a purpose in this book that just isn’t there. If a true moral did indeed exist, you wouldn’t have all these conflicting opinions and articles written by these so-called ‘literary experts.’”
And now here’s the deeply pondered, well-argued conclusion to this epic mental exercise:
“The fact is that J.D. Salinger had no moral in mind when writing the book. He was just a short-story author who was trying to make a few extra bucks by writing a novel. Food had to get on the table somehow. Catcher in the Rye provided him with a means of surviving.”
So there you have it. Catcher in the Rye had no point other than to earn J.D. Salinger some money. The scope of this meticulously researched analysis is astounding. What academic mind could have devised such a flawless and inarguable premise? The author should consider himself an authority in the field of American literature, towering far above the mundane “literary experts” he so rightfully mocks.
Of course, when I reread Catcher in the Rye in my twenties, I came away with an entirely different viewpoint. I realized that, perhaps, Salinger was trying to do something more than “make a few extra bucks.” I realized there might have been a subtext I was missing in that Advanced Composition course so many years before. (Sort of like the way I missed prom because I couldn’t overcome the burdensome task of finding a date.)
In conclusion, I wrote:
“I suppose I should include a quote in order to satisfy the requirements for this particular [assignment].”
Sounds like a good plan: Do the bare minimum, and make sure you formally announce that you’re doing so. You know, in case the teacher hasn’t figured it out already.
“Here is a quote from Holden Caulfield himself, discussing the topic of books and their authors: ‘What really knocks me out about a [good] book is that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.’
“I would personally like to call J.D. Salinger.”
I wouldn’t bother, kid. After reading this, I doubt he’d take your call.