What Was Holden Caulfield Reading? & Other Books I Learned about from Characters in Books

We are always looking for a good book. We read reviews, browse in bookstores, chat to friends, and join Goodreads groups. The critics reputedly have the best taste, but I also note what characters in novels read and books mentioned in poetry.

I have been racking my brain to remember what Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke read but alas! I don’t remember. Here is a short list of specific books I learned about from bibliophile characters in books. Please add any you can think of!

1 The Oxford Book of English Verse. Manya, an actress in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Small Rain, reads aloud an anonymous 16th-century quatrain from The Oxford Book of English Verse to Katherine, her ward and the heroine of the novel.

There seem to be different versions of this poem, but here is one I found online.

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Yes, I own a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse.

2 The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women not only read this allegory but act it out. I admit, I was more interested in the fact that Jo March reads and writes “blood-and-thunder stories,” but I don’t recall whether her favorite trashy reads are mentioned by title.

3 Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in Rye is not only a rebel but a reader, and he he has a thing for Eustacia Vye, a dark, brooding, voluptuous character in The Return of the Native. This was the first Hardy novel I read.

4 Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. In Maud Hart Lovelace’s Heaven to Betsy, Betsy dutifully completes the freshman summer reading, Ivanhoe, and loves it. Some of her friends, i.e., the boys, never got around to it, though. After she tells them the enthralling plot, they get better grades on their papers than she does. The irony of being nice!

5 Chapman’s Homer. In John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the narrator realizes the power of Homer when he discovers George Chapman’s translations.

Here is Keats’s sonnet:

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, 
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 
Round many western islands have I been 
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne; 
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene 
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: 
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 
When a new planet swims into his ken; 
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— 
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. 

6 George Gissing’s The Odd Women. I discovered this 19th-century classic when I read Gail Godwin’s 1974 novel, The Odd Woman. The heroine, Jane Clifford, an English professor, is a George Eliot expert but is also preparing to teach a class on Gissing’s The Odd Woman. Both of these “Odd” novels are brilliant.

7 Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.The heroine Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey reads Gothic novels and starts to imagine spooky things. Catherine introduced me to the work of Mrs. Radcliffe. Unfortunately, i am not a fan!

What books have you learned about from characters in novels or poets?

10 thoughts on “What Was Holden Caulfield Reading? & Other Books I Learned about from Characters in Books”

  1. Western Wind is a very old folk song. The sixteenth century composer, John Taverner, wrote a mass using its tune as a basis.
    “The statements was interesting, but tough.” – Huckleberry Finn’s view of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
    The Pilgrim’s Progress was probably the most widely-read book, after the bible, in the nineteenth century.
    In The Moonstone Gabriel Betteredge, the butler and narrator of parts of the book, is reading his seventh copy of Robinson Crusoe. It may be the only book he has ever read.

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    1. I did not know Western Wind was a folk song.

      Oh, Huck! I need to spend more time with him. Maybe he’ll inspire me to read Pilgrim’s Progress.

      The Moonstone is another beloved book I keep meaning to return to. It seems the butler has good taste, too..

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  2. How did I not know The Odd Woman was related to The Odd Women! The former is a favourite. Thank you for bringing latter to my attention. I return the favour by recommending the late Linda Griffith’s play Age of Arousal, which was “wildly inspired” by Gissing’s novel.

    Like you, my eyes are often drawn to mention of books in works of fiction. The solution to justly forgotten 1956 mystery Blood On My Rug by E. Louise Cushing, one of the most recent books I’ve read, comes in the form of a note hidden in a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift of the Sea.

    Perhaps my favourite mention is found in White Hands, a 1927 novel by the once-popular Arthur Stringer. Here we have a wealthy, hard-working widower returning home to his Manhattan home to find that his daughters have left it in disarray. Amongst powder-boxes, lipsticks, rouge, mascara, and silk and satin unmentionables, he find copies of Ulysses and Casanova’s Homecoming. And so, of course, he packs the girls off to a private island he owns in North Ontario. Ulysses has stood for decades as a book I haven’t attempted to tackle, but Casanova’s Homecoming was new to me. I expect it’s nowhere near as exciting as its title, but old covers suggest it is most ribald.

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    1. I’m so grateful for your suggestions! I have never heard of Linda Griffith, but googled her and read the description. Why haven’t I heard of her before?
      I lespecially like the idea of the note in Gift of the Sea but will also go for “Casanov’a Homecoming.” I have read 250 pages of Ulysses twice, so perhaps if I go back to the beginning and read the 250 pages again I can count it as the whole novel.

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  3. I discovered Gissing this year with New Grub Street. Excellent. I have The Odd Women but the print is miniscule.

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  4. I remember Jo reading Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe in LW, also much was made of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. I tried to read Pickwick Papers but failed, the humor was too slap-sticky for me. I never tried the Yonge but own a copy of her Daisy Chain. One day, time and life permitting!

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    1. How could I have forgotten PIckwick Papers?? The Charlotte Yonge escaped my memory altogether. I did enjoy one of her books, published by Virago, but “The Heir” may be the most famous (if we can trust Jo).

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