'The Catcher in the Rye' comes alive at Carnegie Center event

A table in Chethik's office had items for the Carnegie Center's Catcher in the Rye event.
A table in Chethik's office had items for the Carnegie Center's Catcher in the Rye event.

Opening the big red doors of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning this week, visitors were greeted by a team of carousel horses surrounding the reception desk. Cascading over them were string lights to illuminate the dome to give the appearance of an amusement park ride. On a trip to the second level of the former Lexington public library building, visitors would face a silhouette of the New York City skyline.

Those, and other features such as wallpaper mimicking the tiled walls of New York subway platforms, are all part of the third annual effort to transform the center into a familiar literary world: this year, that of Holden Caulfield's late 1940s New York in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

"We want to open a book and actually allow people to walk through its pages," says Jessica Faye Mohler, the center's marketing and communications director. "Having these artistic surprises that elicit memories from the book and emotions from the book gives this all-encompassing experience inspired by a classic piece of literature."

The previous editions of the center's Carnegie Classics events have taken several hundred visitors to the world of Harper Lee's 1930s Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird and last year to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s world of The Great Gatsby.

Center director Neil Chethik acknowledges that the center's home in the stately early 20th-century building made for an easy transformation into Gatsby's world, and the party centerpieces of the book were an easy basis for an event.

"What we resisted was looking for another book that was pure party," says Chethik, whose office table is piled with worn baseball gloves with poems attached, in the spirit of the glove Holden describes at one point in the book. "We really want people to engage with what's underneath and the value of the book itself and the themes of the book itself."

Catcher is set in the days between Holden's expulsion from exclusive Pency Prep school and his return home for New Year's break. He has numerous awkward and occasionally dangerous encounters with the adult world, which he regards with disdain.

While some schools do include the book on their required reading list, Catcher has been banned by many for its language, sexuality and themes of rebellion. Still, legions of teens have read it on the sly. Picking books that have been widely read by people in their youth for the classics events is intentional, Chethik said

"We aren't trying to introduce people to new literature with this event," Chethik says. "We want to remind people of the literature that they read and remind them how good it was. Then we want to encourage them to re-read it now with all of the differences that are there. Or, if they haven't read it — occasionally there are people who haven't read it — it's a chance to say, 'Hey, you never read Catcher in the Rye? You've got to read this."

One thing Chethik particularly liked about Catcher was a chance to engage younger readers with the book's teen protagonist. So there are intentional touches like the poems for the baseball gloves that were written by the Morris Bookshop-based Teen Howl Poets. Others include music by the Jessie Laine Powell Jazz Trio, a performance by Blackbird Dance Theatre, food meant to evoke Coney Island and New York restaurants, a series of short films by local filmmakers inspired by the book and a recurring duck motif — Holden was very concerned for the ducks in Central Park with winter approaching.

Like last year's Gatsby bash, Center staff hope guests will get in the spirit, and Fox House Vintage Clothing on Euclid Avenue has done just that, offering a 10 percent discount to patrons who go there to put together a '40s ensemble for the party.

"Our art director, Luisa Trujillo, worked very hard at transforming the center into this world," Mohler says. "She has spearheaded many of the decorations and transformation of the building. From cutting out a skyline to creating subway tile and even designing a carousel, she has made the book come alive."