The Catcher in the Rye The Catcher in the Rye question

Why is CITR so Durable?
Monty J Heying Monty J (last edited Mar 28, 2013 01:52PM ) Jan 10, 2013 12:16PM
(Thanks to Philip for posting such an intriguing question.)

To answer the question it may be useful to compare The Catcher in the Rye and four other books that have sold well over time: Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Outsiders.

Here are some factors to consider:

1) Marketing - A strategy that targets young adults may account for some of it. Fresh young minds are more malleable and haven't had time for prejudice and political/cultural bias to seize up their gears.

2) Academic Entrenchment - can be a factor. It's hard to make that list, but once a book gets accepted in the academic community, it's equally hard to get removed.

3) Writing Style - Writng quality seems to be a secondary consideration, given the range exhibited in our sample of five. In our sample,I found Hinton and Golding to be well below Salinger and Lee in readability and yet they keep selling.

Which leaves the basics of 4) character, 5) plot and 6) setting, in general order of importance. All fiction has these building blocks of story in a variety of shapes and arrangement. These are the "guts" of a book, the nucleus of story, what stays behind in the mind after the cover is closed--unforgettable characters, challenged by circumstances in interesting places compiled in a way that transports the reader. People seldom read for a message; they read to be transported. Or because the book was assigned.

Finally there's 7)theme, or premise. What does the book say about the human condition? The pervasiveness of theme, it's depth and breadth and universality, are a prime determinant of it's permanence. Lord of the Flies has little going for it in terms of literary style but it seems perennially stuck halfway up the Modern Library's "Top One Hundred" list. Why? Because it addresses a theme that cuts across every social stratum, every religion, every race, continent, nation and gender--man's propensity toward savagery. To Kill A Mockingbird, dealing with the injustice of racial prejudice, is similar in this regard.

An eighth category, 8) Gestalt, is the overall effect of the book on a reader. What we take away from any experience or work of art is a function of who we are--our capabilities to comprehend composed of education, life experience, socio-cultural bias, our prejudices, our psychological defenses, our maturity. No two people are the same, nor have the same capability to comprehend or interpret a work of literature.

No matter how hard an author tries to imbue his or her work with what to him or her is a very important and obvious message about the human condition, the author may fail simply because a reader lacks the capacity to comprehend it or misconstrues the story's basic truths. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, was (and still is) attacked by wealthy corporate agricultural interests in California who refuse to accept it. I've heard one actually say that Steinbeck exaggerated the plight of the workers in order to sell books. It's human nature to believe what you need to believe and to hell with facts.

CTR obviously meant something unusual to those two young men who had copies of the book when one killed John Lennon and the other shot President Reagan. Perhaps this meant they were looking for answers. Their value systems were running amok, and Holden's angst resonated with their sense of being lost and unable to cope with the phoniness of life.

In Atlas Shrugged we are given a simple solution to all decisions, do only what is in your self interest. But that's in direct conflict what we are taught by most religions in the Judeo-Christian world, to do unto others as you would have done unto you and love thy neighbor as thyself. People who haven't yet learned to reconcile self interest with the common good can be thrown into mental conflict and feel angst. Maybe this is why some people don't like Holden/CITR; it doesn't offer answers. It just describes how it feels to be lost. It reminds them too much of themselves.

The Catcher in the Rye has a lot going for it on all seven levels, but I suspect the book's academic pull has a good deal to do with the book's durability. A lot of teachers and those who teach teachers think CITR as a lot to offer. I can't find a significant flaw in it, whereas in the others I can.

The one strong element that all five books share is theme or premise. They each have something useful, if not profound, to say about the human condition. Why read a book if it doesn't offer some useful insight about life? (Don't answer. It's a rhetorical question.)

CITR is so durable because there will always be teen angst. The trick is getting kids to read it. My son loves it. He has read it multiple times, he even bought a Holden hat(the red flannel hunting cap).

If enough critics say it's great, it will be considered great, even if the work is awful.

Monty J Heying I think, in the case of this book, the academic entrenchment plays a huge role. It's taught in practically every grade school where it's not banned. A ...more
Mar 28, 2013 02:04PM

I agree that CitR complies with all the levels you've listed, and perhaps other people would want to add a few more points. But at the same time, I believe that any work needs only a reason to be considered great. I guess this book relates with the audience (of all ages) better than most others.

I think you need to add "voice." Every word in CTR, and much of TKM, rings with a clear and caring, seeking voice--and a simple voice that readers can hear as their own. It matters.

I don't think the book has been so durable because of these seven factors alone but instead feel that there is an extra quality which CITR has which the other books do not. I feel that there is a deeper connection between this book and the readers which has allowed it to stand above all the other mentioned books. The CITR is durable because it speaks to a certain cross section of society and it speaks to them in a way that the other books don't. Not everyone 'gets' the book and it is because it does not speak in the same way to everyone who reads it. The CITR will remain durable as long as it keeps this quality because that is what has made it durable since its publication.

Monty J Heying Good point. I've added a new category, 8) Gestalt, to the list. See if it satisfies the condition you describe.
Jan 16, 2013 07:20AM

Fir me it was (2). I only read it because I had to in school.

deleted member Jan 19, 2013 01:59AM   -1 votes
one thing i especially liked about CITR was not knowing where the story was going.

back to top

all discussions on this book | post a new topic

Books mentioned in this topic

The Catcher in the Rye (other topics)