The Fish is Different

"If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody."
        — Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
When I was 13 years old, my mother gave me a copy of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a Christmas present.
But not just any copy. -- Her copy.
Saved from her time as a young woman, growing up in a different day and age. The cover nothing more than yellow letters on a plain red background, faded against time until the texture was something like worn-out sandpaper. It had that old book smell, that rich burned scent that at the time seemed sour, but has since grown into one of the most evocative aromas I can think of.

I'd never heard of it, so I turned to her with a questioning look -- to which she smiled and said,
"I think you're ready for this now."
In the wake of Salinger's passing earlier today (and the overwhelming reaction from readers all across the web), it feels like heaping more praise on the book at this point is not only unnecessary, but also perhaps a little bit too reactionary.

Simply put -- Catcher in the Rye is one of the first really powerful books I ever read on my own. Far more realized and touching (imho) than any of Salinger's other published works, which at least for me could never seem to get out of their own way whining about how sucky it is to be a poet in love.

That's not to say people didn't get lots of meaning or inspiration out of Nine Stories or Franny and Zooey, or that I didn't read them all several times over -- but that in the end the messages in those books didn't resonate with me the way Holden Caulfields' wandering inner monologue did.

That copy of Catcher in the Rye was the first book I ever re-read so many times that it literally fell apart. The spine bent back to the point of cracking, pages falling loose and inserted back out of order, dog ears so worn in that they had to be re-dog eared if you happened to find yourself on that page a second time.
I read the hell out of that book.
Yet it's impossible to forget that the reason it eroded into dust and pieces was not so much my greasy teenaged fingers pouring over it as much as it was the years and years it sat on a shelf in waiting after my mother made the decision to pass it on to her future child.

Something that doesn't happen all that often anymore. And frankly, didn't happen all that much between her and I over the years at all.

The thing about Catcher is that everyone reads it differently. It's apparently on several school reading lists now, which is ridiculous. Not that it isn't an iconic book, or one that's not filled with the sorts of devices, techniques, and symbolism that high school English class essay questions were made for -- but that it's not a book you should read with others.

It's one of the things I used to secretly hate about teaching writing to kids. Every year, we'd get to this point where we'd do a unit on poetry, and per the textbooks we'd read all the staples -- Frost's Stopping By a Woods on a Snowy Evening, Elliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Emily Dickinson, Shakespearean Sonnets -- all that stuff.
And every time I taught it I'd preface it the exact same way:
"Class, promise me something. Promise me that you'll re-read these poems 10 years from
now -- you know, when when they'll start to make sense and actually mean something to you."
Why every public school curriculum ever created thinks that 8th graders can not only grasp but would actually give a rats ass about poems written by old men who lament having to growing old is beyond me. And almost every time we did those poems, some student would say, "I don't get it, Mr. Luft -- It's just some guy standing there with his horse looking at snow falling on some woods. Who cares?"

The reason good writing survives -- The reason that we grow to love it generation after generation is that words resonate. The ideas and emotions and feelings in writing vibrate at certain frequencies -- frequencies that ring out in unique harmony with our own feelings and experiences.

But like all harmonics -- it's not just frequency that matters, but the interval as well.
Most 13 year-olds who read Prufrock miss the point of it completely.
To be honest, most middle-school English teachers do too.
Words can be studied to understand technique and effect. Books and poems should be introduced to generations who might not otherwise hear about them. But some things only make sense when you're looking at them in reflection with your own life and experience, and not so much just trying to find the answer to an essay question.
Catcher in the Rye is one of those books.
Let's be honest here. Holden Caulfield was a whiny ass. A lot of the trepidation and sorrow he battles in that book are things he brings upon himself. He's impatient, self-absorbed, and unable to appreciate the good things that he has in his own life.
Just like so many of us at that age.
The book resonates so strongly because it speaks to those feelings of displacement and frustration that raged within so many of us when we were too old to be kids, but not old enough to be anything else. Obsessed with sex, hungry to fit in despite hating the very same people you feel standing on the outside looking in at. Not understanding why adults don't understand, or wondering where the ducks go when the lagoon in Central Park grows cold and freezes over.

And yet -- perhaps the best thing about Salinger's stories (especially Catcher in the Rye) is that at a certain point you grow past them. He was a talented writer, but the short volume of his work leaves him in many ways as a predictable voice. His text speaks to readers, but when you get right down to it -- he doesn't really ever say that much. Certainly not that much that's very different in any of his published work, at least.
"What really knocks me out is a book, when you're all done reading it, you wished the author that
wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."

        — Holden Caulfield
Or to put it another way, as important as JD Salinger's work was to me at a certain point, it was almost equally important to me as a reader (and a writer) that I eventually wore out on it, and hungered for something better.

A trend that was certainly helped along by the fact that the man himself -- who was as much a bitter and reclusive kook as he was a literary genius steadfastly refused to publish much of anything after a certain point in time. Even going so far as to sue the pants off anyone who dared try re-create it or re-interpret it in any official way.

The good part of all this is that no one ever had the chance to make a Catcher in the Rye movie. Oh sure, there are about a billion films that are essentially the same story -- but the old bastard made sure to never let them get their hooks into the actual thing. Never let some director turn it into a cliffs note version that could be rented the night before the essay was due.

And in a lot of ways, that is Salinger's gift to us. Because unless someone in his estate sells it out (which is always possible, I suppose), you'll always have to read his books if you want to get it.

My only regret is that the tattered copy that was given to me fell apart before I had the chance to pass it on myself. Not that a new copy will change the power of the words for a new young reader like my son who may very well be experiencing similar frustrations and angst when the time is right -- but that the shiny cover art of the version that he'll get won't carry the same depth of importance that the well-worn copy given to me brought with it.
An importance that it took me years to realize and honestly appreciate.

[Listening to: Orgy - "Inside My Head" ]


Werdna said…
A+ work on this one.

I remember being pulled towards some of the literary things I didn't understand yet (Shakespeare especially) in high school. And I would agree to go back and read the classics again when you have time later in life.

But some of the classics just never resonate depending on the reader, and that is okay too.