James Delingpole

Oh no: On the Road’s a masterpiece. So what else have I missed?

I had good reasons for ignoring it. And Catcher in the Rye, too. But I’m glad Boy forced me to change my mind

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

This week’s column is dedicated to all those of you who have never read Catcher in the Rye and who, what’s more, are unhealthily proud of the fact. It’s OK: I understand. I was one of you myself till a couple of weeks ago when, at Boy’s insistence, I wearily set aside some of my valuable beach time to plough through this hideously overrated and tiresome ‘classic’.

Why the reluctance? Well, for the obvious reason that Catcher in the Rye — like To Kill a Mockingbird or On the Road — is one of those books you just don’t need to have read because everyone else has done it for you. Including all the thick people who have only ever finished about three books. Or that was how it was when I was at school. The top English sets would study something proper by, say, Austen or Dickens. And the slackers would be given the soft option of doing an American novella, like Catcher or Of Mice and Men.

Besides which, of course, it’s so culturally ubiquitous you know exactly what it’s about already: Holden Caulfield, a moody teenager, tells you his thoughts — and inspires at least three generations of serial killers. Oh, and you get bonus points for knowing that he wears a distinctive red hunting hat, that the reclusive J.D. Salinger wrote little thereafter and that the first line includes a dismissive reference to ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’.

Except the actual book is nothing like you think it’s going to be. For a start, it’s set in New York, not the country. (‘Rye’: you’d pictured the dungareed hero, lying sulkily and adolescently in fields of tall grass, plotting how to murder someone, right?) And Holden is a really sweet kid. Rich and privately educated (another thing you wouldn’t expect for an everyman yoof hero), he goofs around the city for 24 hours playing at being a grown-up (largely unsuccessful attempts at whoring and drinking), but reassuring us how lovely and well-adjusted he is underneath because he’s so nice to his kid sister and those nuns.

I remember experiencing a similar shock on reading War and Peace. And On the Road, for that matter, which I tackled — again at Boy’s insistence — after I’d finished Catcher. Why had I resisted for so long? Because of all those tossers — Bob Dylan foremost among them — who insist that, yes, of course, it’s one of those essential books that you have to read because it will change your life.

Jesus! The presumption of the man! If there’s one thing I’m absolutely never going to do it’s have my literary tastes dictated by some croaky 1960s folk singer (not one of whose albums I’ve ever listened to in full, not ever, seriously, is that bad of me?) whose politics are way left of mine. It would be like consulting Rio Ferdinand on what museums to visit while you’re in Madrid, or asking Keith Lemon for his advice on the most challenging hunt country.

Then I read the book. Oh dear. It’s a bloody masterpiece, it really is. Life–changing, you might even say. Obviously, there is much to dislike about it, especially if you leave it till you’re middle-aged: the disgusting youthful energy and optimism; the way it romantically glosses over the ravages of drug or booze addiction, even to the point of looking on fondly as the blond one-year-old child of Old Bull (aka William S. Burroughs) runs naked in the yard while his parents dedicate their lives to benzedrine and smack.

But it’s brilliant nonetheless and definitely a formative book I wish I’d read at Boy’s age, rather than moping around wistfully as I did with the lovely but doomed Le Grand Meaulnes. Still, that’s what children are for, isn’t it: avoiding all the mistakes you’ve made so that they can make different ones instead?

Naturally, all this has got me thinking: which of the other grotesquely overrated books I’ve refused to read and films I’ve refused to see and albums I’ve refused to hear (Television’s Marquee Moon; The Band’s The Band; Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue) will turn out to surprise and delight me as much as Catcher and On the Road did? And also: how much of the collective critical wisdom out there derives from bluffers too proud to admit they’re actually un-acquainted with the works on which they insist on venturing an opinion nonetheless?

If my experiences are anything to go by, quite a lot. But then, it’s my job: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to read, watch or listen to all the stuff you’re expected to be an expert on so instead you synthesise other critics’ opinions and form a judgment based on theirs.

The problem is that sometimes critics you trust get it wrong. For example the Guardian’s great Peter Bradshaw was unnecessarily down, I thought, on a culty film I adored the other day called Drive, whose tough, taciturn, broodingly handsome, ultraviolent hero I believe may have been loosely based on me. And sometimes not just one critic but the entire consensus can get it wrong, perhaps because of some silly intellectual fad of the day or because no one quite dares say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes or because they’re all just dorks.

Sgt Pepper, for example. If you’d read a Q or NME or Rolling Stone survey of about 20 years ago, you’d invariably find it listed among the top five greatest albums of all time, which it’s just not. ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’: yes. ‘When I’m 64’; ‘Within You Without You’; ‘Lovely Rita’?: I hardly think so. Or as Keith Richards put it recently, it’s ‘a mishmash of rubbish’.

I’m still not going to read To Kill a Mockingbird, though. Whatever Taylor Swift says.

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  • Sean Grainger

    I reread TCITR recently and it’s fine, very good even. I won’t go back to TKAM — listening to the Alistair Cooke archive is more important. But I do hope you didn’t blot out Catch-22.

    • sir_graphus

      Agree on all points.

  • bufo75

    Fascinating to find an Oxford English graduate being told what classics to read, by his schoolboy son !

  • Fraser Bailey

    ‘Music From Big Pink’ is much better than ‘The Band’. ‘Marquee Moon’ and ‘Kind of Blue’ are both very enjoyable.

    I think I found ‘CITR’ a bit silly. I enjoyed ‘On The Road’ but I was a teenager and would probably find it quite silly now.

    Keith Richards is certainly right about ‘Sgt Pepper’.

    • Tamerlane

      ‘Catcher in the Mockingbird’ by Harper Salinger. The Great American novel.

  • Shadeburst

    What really pees me off about Mockingbird is the twee, self-consciously naive voice it’s written in.

    • TLKC

      She’s a kid, you dingbat! Having said that, I’m in the Delingpole camp: haven’t read it either.

      The Catcher in the Rye can be called twee now. It is the kind of book that is massively impactful to begin with and then loses relevance as the cultural sensibilities change. War & Peace, however, is well worth the read, if you can mange it (especially the second epilogue.)

  • Lorenzo

    I read Catcher in the Rye as a Midwestern USA farm kid in high school back in the early 1960s. I wonder to this day why Holden couldn’t appreciate his nice situation and get on with his life.

    • Tamerlane

      Isn’t that the point of the book?

      • Lorenzo

        Probably. I couldn’t understand why such a character as Holden was supposed to be some sort of hero, struggling against something as my teachers assumed.

  • Tamerlane

    ‘Where’s Wally?’. Classic.

  • Adam Schwartz

    You do know Truman Capote’s famous comment about On the Road? “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”

    • Jackbrel

      That’s catty. Not surprising.

      • Hamburger

        Funny though.

  • sir_graphus

    Spot on iconoclasm re Sgt Pepper. 1st 3 songs & last 2 are all time classics, but they book end a load of rubbish. Pet Sounds is 1 of the other LPs were supposed to fall down and worship before, but that’s also very mixed indeed.

  • Scradje

    I loved On the Road. Beautiful and poetic. What struck me the most was the reverence the protagonist had for of all people, George Shearing! That he made an appearance in a work of fiction is trippy, but that Kerouac considered this extremely sophisticated and elegant English jazz pianist to be the absolute height of cool was quite extraordinary!

  • banjo99

    `In which piglet meets a heffalump.`(circa 1926).From AA Milnes Winnie the Pooh.
    A seminal work.A bear of very little brain, his addiction to hunny and salvation from his dearest friends.
    Every word written before was a ladder to the apex,every word written after, simply an unnecessary indulgence.
    Viva Pooh bear!

  • ianess

    Do yourself a huge favour James and give ‘Marquee Moon’ a listen. It’s a wonderful album which still sounds fresh and exciting. Nick Kent wasn’t wrong when he raved about it on his release.
    The second Band album is far superior to the first.

  • Tim Gilling

    Oddly enough I’m half way through On The Road at the moment. I read it as a teenager and liked it because I was supposed to. So I’m surprised to find myself absolutely bowled over by it this time round. It’s a great book in a great American tradition. Oh, and The Band is just great.

  • BillBill

    I would never read a book – On The Road – written by someone who was once buggered by Gore Vidal and the following morning had to borrow a dollar to go back to his Mum.

    (Source: Palimpsest, Vidal’s memoir.)

    • Jackbrel

      My dear, your reading material is going to be much diminished if you apply those principles across the board. Kerouac died in his mother’s house, his devotion to her is well known (and admirable).

  • Richard Eldritch

    Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance- Booooring.

  • Mnestheus

    Is it too early to congratulate Delingpole on his appointment as Master of Wolfhounds by the Neoquorn ?


  • Nige Cook

    J. D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye” chapter 18:

    “Jane said he wasn’t a show-off. She said he had an inferiority complex. She acted like she felt sorry for him or something, and she wasn’t just putting it on. She meant it. It’s a funny thing about girls. Every time you mention some guy that’s strictly a bastard – very mean, or very conceited and all – and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn’t keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”

    This is a profound observation about why women date prats by Salinger. He deserves some credit for getting that right, although the book could and should have been edited down to that paragraph. (But that’s a fault with the publisher’s editor.)

  • Jackbrel

    You should really do yourself a favour and listen to Blood on the Tracks. The writing is much better than a spectator column.

  • Crusty Bufton

    Catcher is a bag of shite, Holden Caulfield is an irritating little twat in need of a good slap
    To kill a mockingbird is genius.
    Drive is great, both film and book.
    Influential is not the same as good.

  • Rush_is_Right

    There is nothing by Salinger one tenth as good as any of Richmal Crompton’s William stories.

    While Kind of Blue is OK but not as good as A Love Supreme .

  • Sean Grainger

    Why does everyone slag off Catcher? It’s short , the style is teen speak ,, and angst ,, there’s a beginning middle and end,, pre internet,, what’s not to like?

  • Sean Grainger

    Oh you didn’t. Basic journalism mate is the intro tells you wot piece is about.

  • WimsThePhoenix

    I’m a fully paid-up charter member of the New Philistine Society wherein:

    – Music contains a tune you can whistle, often creating goosebumps, sometimes makes you cry.

    – Cinema soundtracks are preferable to works commissioned by the BBC Proms.

    – Poetry rhymes

    – Visual Art grabs you by the throat, often brings tears to your eyes and does not need explanation

    – Stories in theatre and literature ends on a positive note, not leaving you suicidally depressed.

    Why “New” Philistine? Because as with everything, Cultural Marxism has reversed all defnitions, including the arts. No longer is truth beauty, nor beauty truth.

    A philistine used to refer to someone who despised the arts, when truth WAS beauty and beauty WAS truth. Thus, in keeping with the world standing on its head, I am now a New Philistine.