Graham, Sarah, ed. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye. London and New York: Continuum, 2007.
Henry James wrote in “The Art of Fiction” that "art lives upon discussion, . . upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints." With James's observation in mind, one of the great ironies of contemporary publishing culture is that as more reading groups form and motivate more people to buy more books in order to read them and gather, ostensibly, to discuss them, more reader's guides and companions appear on publishers' lists. The irony is that the more guides that are published, the less freedom readers have, implicitly or explicitly, to guide themselves. After all, one who would buy such a guide would buy it because s/he isn’t confident to find her or his own way. The fact guides are published, and that the quality of how they "guide" readers' reading and discussion is often quite high, suggests that there is at best a demand on the part of readers to have some guidance for their "discussion and debate" and, at worst, look to the guides to be the "answers," "last words," in which case, of course, there will be no real "discussion and debate."
While one person's placement of that line between encouraging and discouraging discussion would almost never match that of another, for most readers—from those in secondary school preparing for university, for secondary school teachers, for first and second-year university students, for instructors of first and second-year university students, and for reading groups—Graham’s guidance operates on the encouraging side of the border. Nonetheless, the recurrence of a construction explaining what a certain feature “means” or “emphasizes” (e.g. “The novel’s melancholy final line thus implies that there are no easy answers for Holden, or simple answers to the questions raised by the process of growing up in post-war America” ) occasionally, for me, crossed the line between encouraging discussion and, by issuing what sound like last words, cutting it off.
Graham organized the Guide in chapters that describe the novel’s “Contexts”—(“Salinger’s Life and Career,” “Post-War America: Society and Culture”), “Language Style and Form” (“Narration,” “Dialogue,” “Characterization,” “Humour,” “Texts within Texts”), and aid those interested in “Reading The Catcher in the Rye.” Graham subdivided the “Reading The Catcher in the Rye” chapter into subsections, which, in turn, organize an understanding of the novel (here, perhaps, limiting other ways to approach and discuss the book). The subsections are thus titled: “At Pency (Chapters 1-7)” with a summary of each of the seven chapters, “At the Edmont Hotel (Chapters 8-14)” with a summary of each of those chapters, and “Around Manhattan (Chapters 15-20)” with summaries, “Home, Antolini and the Carrousel (Chatpers 21-5)” again with chapter summaries. In those chapter summaries, themes such as rebellion, an emphasis on understanding the novel as bildungsroman, Holden Caulfield’s state of mind and sexuality, issues of gender and identity, and the importance of separating the “reality” of the world of the novel from Holden’s perceptions of it are some of the recurrent issues that shape Graham’s chapter summaries. Each larger chapter division is followed by several “Discussion Questions.” Two welcome, useful, and thoughtful chapters without discussion questions titled “Critical Reception and Publishing History,” “Adaptation, Interpretation and Influence” (including films) and “Further Reading” follow and round out the book.
Sarah Graham’s commentary on The Catcher in the Rye is concise and coherent, developing points, some mentioned above and others expressed in chapter titles, she exposes at the outset and develops throughout. Her treatment of Salinger’s novel provides enough depth to give most readers new ways to think about the novel. At the same time, the book is short enough that it can be used easily by those who haven’t the need for something more elaborate.
In a more perfect world, readers would have the training and practice and passion to organize their own understandings of texts they choose to read and we would have no need for reading guides. That being said, Sarah Graham’s Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is worth seeing and worth using, if one is inclined to use a reading companion of this type, and will, if used thoughtfully, contribute to ongoing discussion and debate that will, together, keep Salinger's novel "alive."
Greg W. Zacharias
Fulbright Visiting Professor at the University of Athens, Greece