This Is Why I Collect Copies Of "The Catcher In The Rye"
J.D. Salinger's novel turns 65 today. I own 20 copies. Here's why.
I own 20 copies of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve got a shelf full of them, a row of tattered spines: multicoloured, invariably faded, well thumbed. Several date back to the early 1950s, one was printed last year. My most expensive edition is probably worth £200, while my least expensive is a pound at most. A couple wear plastic covers to protect fragile dust jackets, but the majority are open to the elements of my room: electric light and acrid boy smell among the most immediate environmental hazards.
I began the collection in earnest when I lived in Australia between 2011 and 2014, adding to the couple of copies I'd picked up on my travels over the years. When I left Oz, I carefully packed them and shipped them home. They've traversed the world with me. They've shunted across town. I move around a lot; they’ve been displayed in six houses in six years. Maybe my geographical instability is why I choose to collect one of my favourite books. I have no idea. Ask your local psychologist.
I say one of my favourites. While it’s not the singular numero uno, top of the pile, it’s up there. Probably top five. It’s certainly my most re-read book. What’s my favourite? It changes so often. Heck, give me Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill and I’ll happily ask Holden who? But the beauty of books is I don’t have to choose. Even the hypothetical desert island allows room for five novels in your luggage.
It helps to collect a book with many dozens of editions. Both the relatively conservative English language editions and the infinite graphic whimsy of the foreign translations are easy to source. Some 65 million copies have been sold since it was first published in 1951, around a million a year. This availability and abundance makes it easy and affordable to begin a collection. I’m not interested in mint. I want to be able to pick them up, flick through them, enjoy them. It's a collection of books, not a museum archive.
Catcher isn’t my only collection. I have a full set of colourful Penguin Drop Cap classics, and several vintage editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (plus three copies of Not Now, Bernard). I just like books. The musty, rectangular form of them. Their tactile, pulpy weight. The sound they make when you tap your fingers on their covers.
My first edition of Catcher was a tattered, dog-eared, marked-up copy from a secondhand bookshop in Queens. I read it in an afternoon, and went back to it several more times during my early twenties. In the past few years, now I'm somewhat financially solvent and actually own bookshelves, I’ve built my collection via eBay and used bookshops. Friends send me editions they’ve found. If you've got a spare copy, hit me up.
When I first read it, at 20, Catcher was a revelation, but not for the reason you might assume: I fell in love with the language. It is still one of the most exquisitely rendered character studies I’ve ever read. The originality and power and consistency of the voice, so brilliantly controlled, so precisely deployed, not a word out of place. I got goosebumps reading it. It lit a fire in my emerging writer brain: Oh… that’s how you do that.
I was predisposed to it. My favourite kind of book is one where nothing happens, but nothing happens well. Give me voice over page-turning plot any day. It’s not an experience unique to Catcher: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did a similar number on me the first time I read it, at 17. So did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So did Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.
In my late teens, voice is what drew me to the writing of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. More recently Nell Zink and Eimear McBride have hit that same sweet literary spot. Tastes change. Ellis and Palahniuk haven’t grown with me, but I haven't outgrown Salinger. Holden stays. It’s something Joanna Rakoff articulated beautifully in her memoir My Salinger Year:
“Here’s the thing: People say you outgrow Salinger. That he’s a writer whose work speaks to the particular themes and frustrations of adolescence. The latter might be true. Certainly, I can attest to the fact that many of the people who wrote letters to him ranged in age from approximately twelve to twenty-two. I don’t know how I would have regarded Salinger had I read him in middle school. But I encountered Salinger as a grown up or rather, someone who, like Franny, was just sloughing off my childhood, my received ideas about how to live in the world. And, thus, with each passing year – each rereading – his stories, his characters, have changed and deepened."
You don't shift 65 million copies by being universally derided, but I'm aware it isn't universally loved, either. It isn’t a cool book, and it has suffered at the hands of its own popularity. Cliche is born of ubiquity, and the power of the voice has drowned somewhat amid a paper sea of imitators and pretenders, and in the mocking of haters who can only parrot the word “phony” to the sound of their own self-satisfied laughter. I'm not saying you have to like it. I'm saying the merit of the book exists whether you liked it or not. The sentences are cemented in ink. They aren’t going anywhere. I'm not going to quote it here. You know the quotes. Open it and read a few pages. It might surprise you.
Like Rakoff, I found Salinger as I was “sloughing off my childhood.” I've re-read Catcher every couple of summers since, finding new things to admire. Noticing new turns of phrase, new perspectives. But I never saw Holden as the saviour of all mankind. Not at all. Like many a teenaged male before and after, Holden is a bit of a dick. It’s not the fault of most boys that age. Nobody tells us our opinions are worth precisely fuck-all. But it's a rich vein to expose and examine. To subvert.
Like all great writing it’s unflinching, unafraid. Salinger pushes and pushes. The result is a majestic study of a blinkered world view. I could care less if you don’t like the book because “Holden is annoying.” Holden isn't a bit likeable. He isn't meant to be. Likeable is the concern of psychopaths and politicians. Fuck likeable. Give me memorable. Give me unique.
I'm not a Holden apologist, but I do have a soft spot for him. Unlikeable isn't the same as unloveable. Mostly I pity him. I've been misguided, self-centred. And his constant complaints make him somewhat endearing. I'm a Yorkshireman. We fucking love to complain. Superman is powered by the sun, a Yorkshireman needs but a gripe or two and he’s good to go. There’s nothing like a moan and grumble. Despite us growing up worlds apart – both geographically and economically – Holden might as well be from down the road.
Finally, there’s the fact that I’m an inveterate pop-culturalist with a sideline morbid curiosity in true crime. Rather than unfortunate coincidence, one of the main reasons I thought collecting editions of The Catcher in the Rye was a good idea is precisely because all the most famous collectors of one of my favourite books were nut jobs, killers, and assassins: Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy when he shot John Lennon, police found Catcher in John Hinckley Jr’s hotel room after he shot Ronald Reagan, and Robert John Bardo was carrying a copy when he murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer. Not to mention the collection owned by Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory. Like all the best pop culture references, it works as earnest affection and in-joke at once.
The bigger question, I suppose, is why does anyone collect anything. Some people collect bottles and stamps and pennies. My dad collects "Archies" – wind-up toy robots from 1950s sci-fi. My mum has a collection of porcelain cats. They fight for space on the mantelpiece. My brother collects tattoos (his own, he doesn't cut them from other people). We are all collectors of something. The Catcher in the Rye is my thing. And it makes me happy. That's probably as good a reason as any.