Why do some stories endure from generation to generation?
It may be useful to compare The Catcher in the Rye and four other books that have sold well over time: Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Outsiders.
Here are some factors to consider:
1) Marketing - A strategy that targets young adults may account for some of it. Fresh young minds are more malleable and haven't had time for prejudice and political/cultural bias to seize up their gears.
2) Academic Entrenchment - can be a factor. It's hard to make that list, but once a book gets accepted in the academic community, it's equally hard to get removed.
3) Writing Style - Writng quality seems to be a secondary consideration, given the range exhibited in our sample of five. In our sample, I found Hinton and Golding to be well below Salinger and Lee in readability and yet they keep selling.
Which leaves the basics of 4) character, 5) plot and 6) setting, in general order of importance. All fiction has these building blocks of story in a variety of shapes and arrangement. These are the "guts" of a book, the nucleus of story, what stays behind in the mind after the cover is closed--unforgettable characters, challenged by circumstances in interesting places compiled in a way that transports the reader. People seldom read for a message; they read to be transported. Or because the book was assigned.
Finally there's 7)theme, or premise. What does the book say about the human condition? The pervasiveness of theme, it's depth and breadth and universality, are a prime determinant of it's permanence. Lord of the Flies has little going for it in terms of literary style but it seems perennially stuck halfway up the Modern Library's "Top One Hundred" list. Why? Because it addresses a theme that cuts across every social stratum, every religion, every race, continent, nation and gender--man's propensity toward savagery. To Kill A Mockingbird, dealing with the injustice of racial prejudice, is similar in this regard.
An eighth category, 8) Gestalt, is the overall effect of the book on a reader. What we take away from any experience or work of art is a function of who we are--our capabilities to comprehend composed of education, life experience, socio-cultural bias, our prejudices, our psychological defenses, our maturity. No two people are the same, nor have the same capability to comprehend or interpret a work of literature.
Given the range of humanity, whether they can "get it" is a matter of alchemy between the mind of the reader and the skill of the author. And luck. And timing. TKM arrived on the shelf on the cusp of America's civil rights movement.
No matter how hard an author tries to imbue his or her work with what to him or her is a very obvious message about the human condition, the author may fail simply because a reader lacks the capacity to comprehend it or misconstrues the story's basic truths. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, was (and still is) attacked by wealthy corporate agricultural interests in California. I've heard one actually say that Steinbeck exaggerated the plight of the workers in order to sell books.
The Catcher in the Rye obviously meant something unusual to those two young men who carried copies of it when one killed John Lennon and the other attempted to kill President Reagan. Perhaps it meant their value systems were running amok, and Holden's angst resonated with their sense of being lost.
Atlas Shrugged supplies a simple though distorted solution to all decisions, do only what is in your self interest. But that's in direct conflict what we are taught by most religions in the Judeo-Christian world, to do unto others as you would have done unto you and love thy neighbor as thyself. People who haven't yet learned to reconcile self interest with the common good are thrown into conflict.
Maybe this is why some people don't like Holden and The Catcher in the Rye. Iit doesn't offer answers; it merely describes how it feels to be lost. Perhaps it reminds them too much of themselves.
The Catcher in the Rye has a lot going for it on all seven levels, but I suspect the book's academic pull has much to do with the book's durability. Many teachers, and those who teach teachers, think this short little novel as a lot to offer. I can't find a significant flaw in it.
The one strong element that all five books share is theme or premise. They each have something useful, if not profound, to say about the human condition. Why read a book if it doesn't offer some useful insight about life? (Don't answer. It's a rhetorical question.)
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