Every great book has to be read at least twice. The first time is for you to enjoy a good read and establish whether it is a book worth reading or not. The second time is for you to enter the author’s world and understand all the little things you hadn’t understood the first time. It’s the little things in life that hold the big things together, and the same works for books. Depending on how much the book meant to you, you will read it a third or fourth time, and so on. The beauty of literature resides in getting to know the characters and their feelings, and so we can feel less lonely and think: “Oh, then I am not the only one who has felt this way.”
Great books are also very subjective. No piece of literature will be understood in the same way by each person who reads it. And again, no book or poem or text will be understood by yourself in the same way each time you read it. You can read a book when you are 15 and then read it again in your twenties and see the characters under a completely different light; you might like a character you hated before, or you will get messages that you didn’t when you were younger. Reading a book is a bit like a journey: if you go to Paris and then you go there again after ten years, Paris won’t be like you remember it, but chance are it will be much better.
There are numerous books this theory could be applied to, but there is one out of all of them that is just the perfect demonstration. This is The Cather in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. It is a classic. It is the book that most of us have had to read in High School and it is a masterpiece that has marked a generation. What makes it one of the greatest reads of all times is that, despite being written in 1951, most teenagers can still relate to it today.
The first read of The Catcher in the Rye might just seem the ‘simple’ yet funny story of Holden Caulfield, a troubled teenager who experiences all the same problems most people experience in their teenage years. Holden is all of us, but he’s much more: he’s our friend because he goes through the same troubles as us. He’s 17 and (surprise!) he doesn’t like school very much and he’s rebellious and also a bit strange. We like his character because he makes us laugh and because of the way he ‘talks’ and all that. He doesn’t like going to the prestigious schools his parents sent him to because they’re full of “phoneys.” Holden at first appears just like many other boys his age: a bit lazy with no clue about his future. We get to the end of the book, a bit sad because it was really good and we put it on the bookshelf with a smile on our faces.
Then one day we pick it up again, just because for some reason we felt like it and we read it again a few years later when we’re a bit grown up. At some point we realise that we didn’t really get the whole picture when we were younger. There is much more to it than just the funny story of a rather strange boy who doesn’t like school and loves his little sister. The book is actually about the inner tragedy of a boy who has suffered and keeps suffering. It is the story of a constant lack of trust and the continuous search for it. It is a story of loss and grief. Holden’s brother died very young of leukaemia; the death of the brother will, understandably, leave the protagonist unable to appreciate the world around him. Then, a schoolmate of Holden also dies when falling out of a window. The adults in the book don’t talk about death with Holden, which leaves him unable to come to terms with his grief.
Now we don’t find Holden that funny but we perceive his pain and try to understand it. We try to comprehend his tragic silence and the effort he makes to avoid facing reality. The way he does everything suddenly doesn’t make us laugh anymore. The way he smokes, drinks and wanders around New York City makes us feel sad. It doesn’t make us smile because now we finally see that his behaviour is a consequence of his suffering. When he wanders about where the ducks in Hyde Park go in the winter, he actually wants to know where people go when they die, and he cannot answer the question. He’s lost and we finally see it.
Even though we discover the real meaning of the book and it’s not all as happy as we thought, we still love Holden and have sympathy for him. All we would like to do now is to call J.D. Salinger on the phone and explain to him that we finally got the whole picture and understood everything he wanted to tell us. So this is a book that can really knock you out, because like Holden says:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”