Sunday, January 31, 2010

On J.D. Salinger

It' a little delayed, but I've been putting my thoughts together.

The first time I read The Cather In the Rye I was in high school. Obviously. The first time anyone reads The Catcher In the Rye it's in high school and most people will never read it again. The first time I read it I abhorred the thing. Holden Caulfied was just the worst kind of self-destructive, short-sighted, bitching emo asshole, completely incapable of taking responsibility for his actions or controlling himself in any positive way. Anything I contributed to class discussions was to this effect and I was quite happy to be done with the damned book.

Then the next year I had to read it again.

This takes a little explaining, but the short version is I had voluntarily dropped myself out of the college level English curriculum for a year because it involved mostly reading essays about what other people thought about books instead of reading the books. The next year this curriculum went back to source material while the normal classes moved to deconstructing essays. Since they wanted me in the higher courses from the beginning, it was fairly easy to coast my way through one year of simpler books I enjoyed and then enter back into the higher level once they were doing something I was interested in again.

It was a pretty sweet deal, except for the fact that I had to read The Catcher In the Rye twice.

However something wonderful happened. I had never read a book more than once, before this. I still will rarely reread any novel, and only years after the first time. I can go back to journal articles and essays and certain other texts, but for me so much of the fun of reading is in being led somewhere by the prose. After reading a novel once, I know where it's going to end up and the suspense–even in genres not chiefly relying on suspense as an artistic basis–is lost to me.

But for the first time I was being forced to reread a novel, one I particularly disliked the first time around. Yet somehow in the span of a year something had clicked inside the writer-y center of my brain squiggles. I found myself actually enjoying watching Holden slowly kill himself because I despised him as everything indicative of a weak, selfish person. He wasn't a person, let alone a person I had to like. He was not a hero, but a protagonist. You needn't like a protagonist. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas from Native Son is a good example as well. He's a selfish, vile person. Yes, he's a product of economic squalor and racism, but he is also a murderer. We as readers only need to understand him, not forgive him. Judgment is our duty and right upon completing a book.

So yes, now I love The Catcher In the Rye and keep a copy on myself. It is pristine and perfect as I have never opened it again, but I know it's there if I want to read it, and I think I'm starting to want to go there again. I hate Holden Caulfield but I love the book. I love it because it i so well written that it makes me instantly hate a person I have never met who doesn't exist.

That is wonderful.

As for the timely and perfectly reasonable death on 91 year old reclusive author J.D. Salinger, I can say only this:

J.D. Salinger Dying can only be a good thing.

Now I'm obviously discounting how much his friends and loved ones will miss him. That's the tragedy of any person's death and it goes without saying that my condolences go out to anyone who knew such a man.

Still, as far as the literary community goes, we can only benefit from this author's death. Salinger has not published a single work in over forty years, despite supposedly writing quite a bit. Ignoring the hell that will follow his estate ever selling the movie writes to a "Catcher" film, there is no doubt that the next few years at least are going to see some incredible, fully formed new works by a brilliant writer.

We are not going to receive a few paltry letters and journal entries; we are going to be seeing fully formed and finished novellas, shorts, even entire novels that have been completed but not seen the light of day since 1965.

For the literary community it has been as if J.D. Salinger died in 1966. However now we get to see what it is he's been doing alone in his head all this time.

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