The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was the single most influential piece of media on my teenage youth and has stood the test of time as the literary work to which I feel most connected. This is not to say that witnessing the evolution of MTV—an entire channel devoted to the artistry of musicians—didn’t permanently alter my perception of perceived norms, however no other theme re-emerges more in my life than Holden Caulfield’s struggle to protect some sense of innocence.
The Salinger novel is neither over-written nor lengthy. It fits in the palm of your hand like a mini reference bible to life. Inside the sparsely written tale of an anxiety-ridden teen battling reality are buried nuggets of wisdom. For instance, when Horwitz asks Holden, “You don’t think the fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?” (83; ch. 12), it reminds readers that survival depends on being able to toughen up in hard times.
The book is impactful for this exact reason, it doesn’t force feed a singular message rather it offers an evolving message that unfolds as you read the book with age and life experience. Exposure to great literary works of art like this set my life on an analytical course with a critical eye towards mass media. A shift in my perceptions occurred and my eyes were opened to questioning that which is otherwise accepted as standard operating procedure.
To this day, when life hurdles tragedy my way, like the recent passing of my lifelong friend to ovarian cancer, I find myself identifying with Holden Caulfield. I want to protect her two young children from the severe loss and adult pain of grief. I want to catch them as the song lyric in the book says, “coming through the rye.” (115; ch 16).
To go so far as to say that this book formed my identity however would be a stretch for me. With the recent passing of music icon David Bowie, the news has featured many people saying that he single handedly influenced the direction of their lives. Perhaps he did. But true to my inner Holden, I am skeptical of those that site any one primary media source as the formation of their sole identity. Rather, it’s my belief that circumstances as well as genetics shape our identity and lead us to be drawn to media that validates the expression of our true inner selves.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger set me on a course for discovering challenging forms of media likely because I was drawn to the skeptical nature of the main character. Being raised by an old-fashioned father possessing dogmatic views, with whom I constantly debated, shaped my identity. While I have always tended to follow my father’s traditional values, I stop first to question why they are in place.
At the core of my identity is my attraction to things that challenge me. As a result, predictable dialogue and hackneyed themes in movies, television shows, and stories fail to entertain me. Cliché lyrics in songs fail to inspire me. Just as Holden wants to have interesting conversations, I want to be provoked by what I am listening to, reading or watching. If I can foresee the outcome or if the song repeats the hook ad nauseam, I change the station.
Over time, I would argue that my core identity has stayed the same. However I would also concede that like fine wine it has expanded to include more varietals. I now accept that people are complicated, circumstances alter behaviors, no person can be defined by any single action, I cannot spare my friend’s young daughters from pain, and that life is not black and white but rather soaked in bold colors.
How has my taste shifted over time to today? When I first read Salinger’s novel, I spent my spare time reading album covers, drinking Dr. Pepper, eating Stouffer’s frozen pizzas, and watching the aforementioned music videos. My life was an open book. I now peruse bookstores, follow indie bands, enjoy art museums, am now allergic to milk so I can have neither of those favorite childhood treats, consume dedicated news channels in abundance, and binge watch shows like NBC’s “The Blacklist” on Netflix. Yet, as Holden says of his parents, I “would have about two hemorrhages” (1; ch 1) now if I were to say anything more personal.
SOURCE: The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger. ISBN 0-553-25025-6, Little, Brown and Company
*A condensed version of this essay was submitted on assignment for “Early Media Experiences” Digital Communications, Syracuse University Newhouse January, 2016
Did you have an early impactful experience with a book, movie, song or other form of media? Did it validate or shape your identity?
This post is for education purposes only for Syracuse University Newhouse School of Journalism.