Jonathan Yardley delivers the definitive smackdown to Catcher in the Rye. (Great enough that I'll forgive his gratuitous insult to The Old Man and the Sea.)

It isn't just a novel, it's a dispatch from an unknown, mysterious universe, which may help explain the phenomenal sales it enjoys to this day: about 250,000 copies a year, with total worldwide sales over-- probably way over--10 million. The mass-market paperback I bought last summer is, incredibly, from the 42nd printing . . .

Viewed from the vantage point of half a century, the novel raises more questions than it answers. Why is a book about a spoiled rich kid kicked out of a fancy prep school so widely read by ordinary Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have limited means and attend, or attended, public schools? Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as "a symbol of purity and sensitivity" (as "The Oxford Companion to American Literature" puts it) when he's merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one?

That last question actually is easily answered: "The Catcher in the Rye" can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. Like that other (albeit marginally better) novel about lachrymose preppies, John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" (1960), "The Catcher in the Rye" touches adolescents' emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It's easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.