Is Catcher in the Rye overrated?

Several weeks ago, I read this Slate article which asked contemporary writers to pick the most overrated famous novels. I enjoyed the whole piece, but was especially interested in seeing that several people picked Catcher in the Rye. I bought and re-read the book following JD Salinger’s death and found it kind of … annoying. There were some sections that still riveted me and some indelible characters, but I had a hard time getting past Holden’s narcissistic whining.

I was so profoundly moved by Catcher when I was about 14 and I started wondering why, trying to get back into my adolescent head and relate to what I (and, of course, so many others) found so compelling. Part of it was surely the mere fact that I thought I was supposed to be so compelled by the book. I think just the simple act of a high school kid lashing out at “phonies” and refusing to play the game and openly expressing such disdain for both his contemporaries and virtually all authority figures.

The idea of him being in a New York hotel room, going to bars and jazz clubs and dialing up a prostitute (even if it ended in disaster) no doubt appealed to my Juvenile Delinquent self as well. I was always trying to cook up ways to do something slightly subversive, and the book was an inspiration in that regard. Maybe if I had never read Catcher, I never would have even had the idea of saving up rolls of coin to cash in and take the bus downtown to the Victory Bar with my best friend, so we could drink 40 cent draft beers all day. We liked getting sloshed to be sure, but we also liked doing something so crazy and so not what everyone else at school was doing. It kind of felt like we were taking a stand against the phonies, even if that doesn’t actually make any sense whatsoever.

Tom Perrotta’s entry, in part:

On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that’s been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it’s “just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.”

Is it more than that? Lots of people, including some writers I revere, seem to think so. But I’ve never been able to see what they’re seeing, nor can I buy into the myth that Holden is some sort of representative American teenager.

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