Some books, such as sleazy Wal-Mart romances, are dead as soon as they hit the shelves. These books are food for landfills, and probably remain in the hearts of only two people: the author and the 60 year old hermit woman who waits, with mossy teeth for her Fabio to swing from the vines of the book’s cover (Tarzan call and all) and rescue her from soap operas and loneliness. But, there are books that pop every once in a while that last for generations. These books sit proud in the “classics” section and differ from the Wal-Mart paperbacks in that they have universal themes.
Universal themes keep the lifeblood pumping in a literary work because all readers of all generations of all races of all cultures and all sexes can relate. The only criteria is this: that you be human and you have human emotions. Shakespeare’s works, for example, contain universal themes and they still have the ability to electrify readers’ veins today. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is one of these proud classics and is so because it can speak to the masses of all generations and peoples.
One major theme of universality in this book is the coming of age. Though his slang words may be dated, Holden’s story still shows the experience and emotion that modern teenagers go through today. With a few exceptions, the details of Holden’s story could just as easily have been set today. Holden Caulfield is the protagonist and narrator of the book. In the book’s opening, Holden is a 16-year-old junior at a school named Pencey Prep. Holden has just been expelled for academic failure.
Holden is actually very intelligent and sensitive, however he narrates his story in a cynical, lack-jawed voice. Though he never says so outright, he longs to live in a beautiful and innocent world and finds the hypocrisy and ugliness of the true world around him almost unbearably painful. His cynicism is his attempt to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the adult world. As the novel opens, Holden stands with childhood in back of him, and adulthood directly in front.
His damaged innocence also leaves him on the brink of a nervous breakdown! As Holden begins to realize the harsh reality of the adult world, he is coming of age. Most people struggle with “coming of age” sooner or later. It is either sink or swim. The result is both growth and triumph, rewarded by maturity, or either failure and ultimately a thirty year old still whining to his mama like he is six. People want to read stories that have the same feelings and emotions that they do.
By reading these type books with universal themes, we are able to relate directly to the characters in the book. As long as there are people walking the earth, they will want to read about the experiences that are similar to theirs. People of all walks of life are drawn to great literature like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for its themes of universality such as coming of age, which everyone can relate to simply because they have already “come” of age, or they are grunting and sweating through the actual journey themselves.
Unless there comes a great computer revolution and man as we no him (with all his human passions, weaknesses, and emotions) is conquered by computers and robots (with no passions, just wires), then there will still sit books such as Salinger’s on the shelves because they have the ability to touch our humanity. This is precisely why, generation after generation, we are drawn to such classics.