What makes a book great? Some books regularly show up on “the greatest list” of literature and many are almost entirely unread or unreadable by contemporary audiences. Authors like Faulkner and Joyce are known for their difficult prose and it’s hard to imagine books like Light in August or Ulysses selling a single copy today.
The Catcher in the Rye has consistently sold tens of millions of copies every year since it was published over 60 years ago. Granted, banal books like Fifty Shades of Grey have also sold in the tens of millions, but most tend to be pan flash amusements that grow cold in time.
Something between the simple words of its first person narration catches in the gullet and has sparked both reflection and action – occasionally with horrific consequences – in generations of readers.
In Holden Caulfield, Salinger channeled the melancholy of Hamlet and invented a genre of angst exploited and expanded by Sarte, Camus and others. When Sylvia Plath says in The Bell Jar “I felt wise and cynical as all hell” you can almost see a copy of Catcher sticking out of her purse. Yes, the existential roots were already in place, but the rebellion and sociological seismic shifts of the late 50’s and 60’s were still ahead. Salinger might not have invented them, but his influence is undeniable.
So does that make the book great?
I can’t say it was enjoyable to read, nor do I recommend it as beach reading for a breezy summer day. It is dark and frustrating and most of the time I wanted to skim to the end to get past the droning whine of Holden Caulfield. That said, my contextual understanding of its resultant ends made the means worth the trip.