The summer after I turned sixteen I had to keep a reading diary for school. Each member of my class had to write a synopsis of every book we picked up over those two months, and then at the start of term we had to choose one as the topic for a long essay. It would make up almost half of our final English grade.
Most people returned to school in August carrying a scrap of paper with five, maybe six titles scrawled on it. I brought in a lined exercise book, almost half full. I’d read Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’d read Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, The Crow Road and A Clockwork Orange, Mansfield Park and Good Morning, Midnight. I was a model student.
But I also liked to provoke. So among the Austen and the Auden there was some poorly-written chick lit and a few celebrity biographies. Things I knew would piss off my teacher, whose own favourite novel was Bleak House.
For a long time I had believed that any reading was good reading: that it didn’t matter what sort of books were on your shelves as long as there were plenty of them. But in my mid-teens I started to understand that some books were more rewarding than others. I longed to become a ‘serious’ reader. That is, one who would make informed choices rather than easy ones. I assumed that with all his years of experience, my English teacher could help me become the reader I wanted to be. I wanted the reading diary to come back to me with red writing all through the margins, for him to say THIS IS A GOOD ONE and THIS IS NOT and WHY DID YOU WASTE YOUR TIME ON THIS?
He obliged. He was thrilled by some of my choices, appalled by others. I said I would do the long essay on a Nick Hornby novel, and he screwed his nose up at me in disgust.
“Fluffy,” he said. “Fluffy and far too easy. But what about this?” He jabbed at the page with his pen.
“The Catcher in the Rye?” I said. “Urgh. What’s it even about? An obnoxious rich kid having fun in New York. No way. I didn’t get it.”
He fixed me with a look. “It’s about a teenager having a nervous breakdown,” he said. “It’s something of a classic.”
I went home, picked it up, and began to read again.
I was stunned at how much I had missed. On the second reading, I refused to be deceived by the simple language. Instead I scribbled copious notes about the imagery of catching and falling, the use of symbols, and the countless examples of Holden’s unreliable narration. Suddenly the story made sense.
In some ways, I felt like my own innocence and initial misreading of the book mirrored Holden’s experiences. We were both stuck in that awkward, awful place between childhood and adulthood, where one day you feel like going out for frozen Daiquiris and sex with strangers, and the next you just want to find out where ducks go when their lake is iced over. Thank goodness for that teacher who insisted I give the book another chance, and perhaps understood how much I would get from it if I tried a little harder.
Fifteen years later, The Catcher in the Rye is my favourite book. It is my well-thumbed, most-loved, just-slim-enough-to-slip-into-a-handbag book. It is the comfort-read that I return to at least once a year, always finding something surprising and new.
But more importantly, it was the novel that kicked off a whole lifetime of more critical thinking about literature. I was shocked that I could read it the first time and miss the point so spectacularly, and then read it again with fresh information and be so blown away. After that experience, I began to pay much closer attention to the complex ways in which words could be placed side-by-side and layered on top of each other.
It was the book that led me to a degree in English Literature, and a career as a writer. It is where I started to understand the importance of choosing the right words to tell my own stories - something I’m still much more comfortable doing on paper than in person.
I’d been an enthusiastic reader long before high school. As a little girl I would never be seen without a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Dear Zoo tucked under my arm. I moved on to Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith, before raiding my brother’s bookcase and losing myself in the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Later, when I was as much of a hot, swirling mess of hormones as every other teenage girl, I checked Judy Blume books out of the library, and looked to them for all my answers. I was forbidden from reading Trainspotting, but bought a copy anyway and read it under the covers with a torch.
Reading The Catcher in the Rye showed me that analysing a book in depth could add to my enjoyment, rather than taking away from it. With the guidance of a good teacher, who had encouraged me to choose a difficult book over an easy one, and in order to give that book the time it deserved, I had taken my first step to becoming a serious reader.
When I started university, there were excellent tutors who continued the work that my English teacher had started, and pointed me in the direction of difficult books, beautiful books, books that had to be read two or three or a dozen times before I finally made sense of them.
My four-year degree was something of a reading rollercoaster. One semester I studied The Modern American Novel, and the next Medieval Scottish Literature. It always paid to read the course descriptions carefully. Western Fictions was not, as I had expected, a deconstruction of orientalism. It was novels about cowboys. I loved it.
I am so pleased to have passed a love of books on to my son. When he was just a few days old, the community midwife came round for a home visit and gave a great, deep belly laugh when she found him propped on his Dad’s knee, looking intently at a cloth book full of shapes and squiggles.
“Don’t you think you’re starting him a bit early?” she asked.
But I don’t think there’s such a thing as too early. The joy that comes from reading is hard to match. If you feel comfortable holding a book from an early age then you will grow to have a deep respect for words, without ever feeling intimidated by them. If I’d been a less enthusiastic reader, my embarrassment at misunderstanding The Catcher in the Rye may have been enough to put me off difficult books forever. But I was not afraid to pick it up and try again. I understood that with perseverance, the words would reveal their meaning to me.
When I found out two years ago that my husband, son and I would be leaving our home in the UK and moving to Australia, I started reading about it. Not Lonely Planets or Rough Guides, but fiction and poetry and journalism. Favel Parrett. Danielle Wood. Richard Flanagan. Bruce Chatwin. Tim Winton. Their books were my first peek at a place that I had never even visited, but would soon be calling home.
When we arrived and found our new house, my biggest pleasure was unpacking the books that had been sitting in boxes for so long. Many of them had been in storage for several years. We built a beautiful new bookcase from Tasmanian oak, and could almost hear the pages sighing with relief as they settled on the shelves.
Ten years ago, when I first met the man who is now my husband, each one of us already had a huge life of books behind us. We dated for a while, before starting to question whether this fun, crazy thing we were doing was going to become more serious. He had only been living in Scotland for a few months, and told me that all his books were still in boxes in the spare room. That was fine, I said. We could keep doing dinners and drinks, but I would not be visiting the flat until his books were unpacked.
I needed to see which childhood favourites he had hung on to all these years; which tattered travel guides would prompt stories and laughter about past holidays; which poetry collections he would pull down from the shelf and read aloud late at night. Until he made that commitment, and shared the words he treasured the most, how could I know that he was staying?
He did stay. He unpacked. I visited the flat, occasionally at first, and then for good. We combined our collections, and could not believe that among the thousands of books we put up together on the shelves, there was only one duplicate.
It was The Catcher in the Rye.
Of course it was.
It's his favourite too.
Ruth Dawkins is a writer who comes from a tiny island in the north of Scotland. Two years ago she moved to Tasmania, where the cold winters, beautiful light and generous measures of whisky make her feel very much at home. She tweets and blogs as DorkyMum.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.