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First, we have to remember that we can't always trust what Holden tells us; he does lie and admits doing so. Here, however, he means that he isn't as well educated as he thinks he ought to be--he hasn't read, for instance, the books he's been assigned in school perhaps--but he does like to read. His favorite books include Out of Africa, a book that he got by mistake. Any book whose author he believes he could just pick up the phone and talk to is one he thinks he would enjoy. In Chapter 3, he mentions two other books he likes: Return of the Native and Of Human Bondage; both of these are challenging, serious novels that a truly illiterate person could not read.
J. D. Salinger felt obliged to explain how a sixteen-year-old boy who had been kicked out of three prep schools and had virtually no high-school education would be capable of writing a novel like The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger himself, of course, was older and better educated, but he had chosen to use a teenage narrator and thereby created a memorable character. Salinger has Holden talk about his reading habits and reading tastes in order to make it credible to the reader that this boy, a virtual dropout, could be such an interesting writer. Holden's writing has been influenced by the good writers he had read. He is something of an autodidact. He has picked up the elements of style and grammar from good writers (and good editors).
Salinger also supports the belief that Holden could write The Catcher in the Rye by having three characters testify to the fact that Holden is a very good composition writer. One of these characters is Holden's roommate Stradlater, who asks Holden to write a descriptive essay for him and mentions that Holden is known to be a hotshot in English composition. The other two characters are teachers. One is the elderly Mr. Spencer, whom Holden goes to see before he leaves Pencey. Mr. Spencer does not much like the paper Holden wrote on Egypt, but he knows Holden is intelligent and a good writer. The other teacher is Mr. Antolini, who actually calls Holden a "little ace composition writer."
All of this is primarily to justify to the reader that Holden may be a dropout and a rebel but that he is not indifferent to higher learning. His big problem is that he lacks self-discipline. He won't read a book if he doesn't like it. He only reads what he likes. He is developing an independent personality, and his independent thinking is evident in his compositions. That is why he can get all D's and F's in most of his classes and A's in English. We actually believe we are reading a book written by a sixteen-year-old high school dropout when we read The Catcher in the Rye. Not only that, but we actually believe that everything he talks about in the book really happened! Salinger creates a near-perfect illusion.
In chapter 15, Holden meets a couple of nuns at breakfast. One of them happens to teach English, which sparks his interest because that is his best subject in school. He also starts wondering what a nun would think about some of the less-than-Biblical books that he's read; such as, The Return of the Native, Romeo and Juliet, Beowulf, and Julius Caesar. Holden has actually read a lot for his age. He understands the books he reads and he has an opinion about them. For example, when he speaks with the nun about Romeo and Juliet, he isn't very articulate with his thoughts, but at least he has some. He does a fair enough job discussing the play with her; it's just his lack of phrasing and elocution that seem to be lacking. Either Holden doesn't really know what the word "illiterate" means, or he misspeaks himself when he really means that he is "inarticulate." Another possible explanation for Holden saying he is "illiterate" is that he doesn't have the education and experience to dive deeply into a conversation about literature because he still feels like a novice.
Holden Caulfield, the main character in the novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, means that, although he does read quite a bit, he is not really conversant in what he is reading or has read. In essence, Holden reads a lot, but does not always grasp the meaning and significance of what he is reading. Therefore, he may get a general overview of a book, but not enjoy the deeper meanings which can be extracted from a book based on critical reading. This type of critical reading looks for the subtext behind the words on the page. Therefore, Holden Caulfield takes part in a more uninformed reading, maybe more of a cursory reading.
Examples of books he reads include “Out of Africa” by Danish author Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke). This is a book (a memoir) about her years on the Dark Continent - Africa. Holden Caulfield also read “The Secret Goldfish”, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” In addition, he read “The Return of the Native” byThomas Hardy.
Therefore, Holden is not shying away from great literary works of substance. However, admitting that he is “quite illiterate” shows that he is not taking his reading as serious as he might want to, to improve his language and analytical skills. The desire to read is there, which is a good starting point. The challenge for Holden is to take his reading to the next level, whereby he garners all the richness and gems of insight that can be extracted from a fine literary novel. Finding insight from a well-written novel would help him see things from others’ perspectives’ as he tries to negotiate a path that is right for him in life.
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