People have their favourite books. Pride and Prejudice, Catch 22, Middlemarch, War and Peace, even the latest airport paperback bought to while away time on the beach.
Mine’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s masterpiece, always has and always will be. But J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye runs it close. Holden Caulfield’s adolescent New York trials and tribulations and how goddam phoney everything is!
But here’s the thing. I read ‘Catcher’ when I was 21, totally loved it, laid its soul in my heart, and until today – a few decades later! – I hadn’t even so much as picked it up. So, question is – can you have a favourite book if you’ve only read it once? Don’t you have to have read it a goddam million times to prove to yourself that it is actually your favourite? Reading it just the once must be sort of phony, mustn’t it?
My original copy.
I was amazed how much of ‘Catcher’ I had totally forgotten. The Copperfield opening, Pencey Prep, some people in New York, Maurice and the prostitute and meeting up with sister Pheobe towards the end, I remembered all that. But meeting Sally Hayes, the hotels, the Pencey boy’s mum on the train to New York, Carl Luce and Mr Antolini… nothing.
So how can Catcher be one of my favourite books for most of my life, running goddam Jane A close, and I had forgotten half of it? What sort of phony bastard puts Catcher a million miles above so many other books I know much more about when I had blanked out loads?
Dunno… except for one thing. Salinger’s tone and style was so new, so stylistic, so unforgettable, what I was left with for all those years was not only the main thrust of the story – I knew its arc and why it’s called The Catcher in the Rye for Chrissakes – but the indelible, irrepressible essence of the book. From the opening words, I knew it was going to be one of my top favourite novels for the rest of my life and who would care if I forgot the odd bit.
And while we’re on favourite books, another Salinger, his collection of nine stories, often going by For Esme With Love and Squalor, is another right up there with Pride and Prejudice and Catcher. In fact, I believe Esme, the title story, is the finest short story ever written in the whole Goddam world. And yes, I have read that a million times.