At least 75% of the nuances and the cultural references in the book went right over my head in my first 75 or so readings done between the ages of 12 and 15. I didn’t know from Manhattan or prep schools or ice skating rinks or the Natural History Museum, and I certainly didn’t get what was going on in that scene where Holden Caulfield visits his former teacher in the hopes of staying on his couch overnight.
But, oh the emotion — that tortured, my head’s-gonna-split-open-and-nobody-understands angst that Holden expresses through J.D. Salinger’s plain eloquence and masterful ear for dialogue. That I got from the very first. I can’t describe the mixture of joy and revelation I felt in discovering No. 1 — here was a person grappling with feelings and inner conflicts that I was experiencing but couldn’t even name — and No. 2 — that it was possible to connect so deeply with a character and a story. My kinship with Holden extended to his creator, of course, and when I heard on Thursday that Salinger had died, it hit me so deep in my bones that for a few hours I couldn’t even read any of the obituaries and appreciations that flooded the Internet.
I’d had favorite books before “Catcher” — “Harriet the Spy,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “A Cricket in Times Square,” the “Little House on the Prairie” series among them — but nothing turned me inside out and back again like “Catcher.” Nothing. I know this sounds trite but there were times, good grief, there were times when that book got me through some of the darkest days of my life. In the fertile ground of my imagination, Holden was my older brother offering a sympathetic ear in the middle of the night, as growing pains took their toll.