Gautam Malkani

How apt that JD Salinger should have gone to the Great Writers’ Retreat in the Sky on the exact same day that Apple unveiled its latest piece of high-tech handheld gadgetry, the iPad.

Although The Catcher in the Rye defined adolescence for generations of angst-ridden teenagers - and still sells by the bucketload –  one reason the novel doesn’t have quite the same resonance with the young and acned of today is because their lives have been so totally transformed by the sort of technology peddled by the likes of Apple. 

If the world Holden Caulfield narrates against in the novel was – to use his favourite word – phoney, the propagation of mobile phones and other forms of handheld entertainment technology means today’s teenagers are engulfed in a very different layer of artifice. So much so, they’re usually too distracted to notice the world beyond it.

On a practical level, it’s the quick buzz offered by these devices that makes it so much harder for young people to perservere with reading novels. Then there are the virtual spaces teenagers inhabit when they relocate their existence to Facebook or Twitter – and, more importantly, the values those spaces promote. After all, what could be more phoney than mobile phones that allow you to log on to your Facebook page and advertise the latest developments in ‘Brand You’ to your mates? While the concept of the teenager that Salinger helped create was characterised by counterculture,  today that same demographic looks more like a marketing category obsessed with consumerism.

But perhaps the real incompatibility between Salinger’s novel and the kind of technology unveiled the day he died makes sense when you think about the book’s plot.  In the age of the iPhone and Blackberry, few teenage protagonists can just up and run away to New York without being tracked by their parents. It’s the same with all boy’s adventure stories – the existence of a mobile hotline to mummy makes it pretty difficult to inject a genuine sense of danger and suspense.  This perhaps explains why many of the books that do appeal to today’s teenagers are steeped firmly in the fantasy or horror genres. Meanwhile, those few successful  novels about the more earthly business of coming-of-age (such as Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood) tend to be set before mobile communications technology existed. For example, Charlie Higson, author of the Young James Bond books, has cited the mobile phone as one of the reasons he decided against setting those books in the present.

Of course, I’m probably guilty of the kind of hypocrisy Holden Caulfield would curse me for: I’m focusing my first-ever blog post on the downsides of technology. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading posts all over the web from teenagers mourning Salinger’s death. But the point is that while today’s forms of electronic entertainment might make it easier for teenagers to enthuse collectively about books like The Catcher in the Rye, it makes it much harder for people actually to read them. 

Being Apple’s first foray into the eBook market, the iPad itself might hold out hope of reversing these trends and making the novel feel more relevant again. But downloading The Catcher in the Rye on to a backlit screen instead of thumbing a dog-eared, dirt-stained paperback? Salinger would be glad he didn’t live to see the day.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

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