All you need to know about the books you meant to read

CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951) by J D Salinger

Plot: Teenager Holden Caulfield's account of two days wandering across New York City, snapped out in peppy vernacular. Expelled from his stuck-up "prep" school, "lonesome" and allergic to ``phoneys'', Holden decides to vanish for a bit. He has never recovered from the guilt at the death of his younger brother Allie and wears the burden throughout his comic/ absurd adventures. He has a series of sexual encounters from which he emerges both silly and perceptive. Sneaking home to see his sister Holden's day-dream is of ``thousands of little kids'' playing in a field of rye, by the edge of a cliff. His job would be to protect them from danger. After a breakdown he is sent to an institution, where he is flooded with compassion for phoneys.

Theme: The teenager as existential anti-hero.

Style: The snazzy demotic can be both banal and funny; yet there are hair-line traces of pathos as the language cracks under the pressure of feeling.

Strengths: Given the futility of Holden's quest, it could be gloomy. But the book skips along.

Weakness: Holden's naivete can lurch into cuteness. The novel does not resolve his dilemma.

What they thought then: Coming just after the war, the book's condemnation of adult posturing hit precisely the right note.

What we think now: A nice present for 15-year-olds. The underpinning philosophical alienation is skated over.

Responsible for: Making people take adolescence seriously. Inspiring John Lennon's killer; he thought Lennon "a phoney".

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