I kind of resisted reading this book, in part because of the hallowed status it has among high school- and college-aged persons. This and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five probably compromise 90% of the subjects of college admisson essays that begin, "Describe a book you love and the effect it's had on your life." So many people my age seem to identify so strongly with Holden Caulfield that I just didn't want to be one of them.
Problem is, Caulfield is exactly like me. He's smart, well-read, articulate, vain, idealistic, obsessive, disillusioned, and deeply, deeply flawed. I am tempted to say that he is the most human character I've ever read about in my life. He says things impulsively and then says the opposite later; he loves and hates things and people simultaneously. It sounds maddening but it's human, and it would be impossible for anyone in high school or college not to identify with him.
The story follows Caulfield during the few days between when he's kicked out of his prep school for academic reasons and the day he has to return home for what his mother thinks is the beginning of winter break; in the meantime he hangs out in New York and sort of just exists, alone and fighting the power of phoniness in the world. He's severely depressed and expresses hatred for almost everything, but inevitably shows many of the same characteristics that he so dislikes. It is not an easy book to figure out; it's neither possible nor necessary to determine whether Caulfield's outlook on the human race is correct or incorrect. Somehow, I believe, it is both at the same time.
I could go on and on about what happens in this book, but the plot isn't really as important as the character, and to really appreciate that it has to be read. So read it.
On a side note: The "frank" depictions of sex in this book make it one of the more challenged high school readings in America. Challenges to it are clearly bunk, but the book's openness about sexuality interests me because it's set in the late forties and if you took out all the temporal markers like the names of actors, it could be a milder version of I Am Charlotte Simmons. It's a great depiction of "hook-up culture" in school, which is great because you don't always think of things being the same so long ago, but they were. Holden's accounts of sexuality and alcohol could be lifted from my roommate's diary, if he kept one and it weren't in Dutch.