A lot has been written about J. D. Salinger since his passing last week, so I thought, What the hell? Why not write more? After all, he is my favorite writer. So, what did Salinger mean to me? What he means to me now is quite different from what he meant to me when I first discovered his work at thirteen.
In school, we’re assigned a lot of books to read. And, honestly, most of the classics did little for me as a kid. I’d be given a book to read by my English teacher, and then stare down at it with a certain bit of disdain and dread. Wanting to read a book is one thing. Having to read a book is another. Catcher in the Rye was the first book I was required to read that didn’t feel like a chore. From the opening sentence, I was hooked.
Catcher opens with: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Wow. I was blown away. This was not stuffy, formal writing. This was something loose, daring, and different. This was a book with curse words; this was a book that gave the middle finger to mainstream society and all the niceties that come all with it. I immediately identified with Holden Caulfield. He was just a kid, troubled, unusual, kind of a jerk really, but more sensitive than most. Upon that first reading, I thought the book was speaking directly to me. Of course, I would later learn that millions of kids felt the same way. That is the true genius of Catcher in the Rye. Most who’ve read it felt like it was written for them, to them, about them. We’ve all felt like Holden Caulfield. I began to carry the book around with me like it was my bible. I didn’t want to let it go.
Soon after discovering Salinger, I picked up a copy of Nine Stories. To this day, I don’t believe there’s a more perfectly crafted short story collection. The opening story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” shook me to my core, with an ending that hasn’t left me to this day. Like Holden Caulfield, the main character in “Bananafish,” Seymour Glass is unforgettable. If Salinger had a cult, I would have happily chugged the Kool-Aid.
That was then. My teenage years were spent reading and re-reading Salinger’s work. Analyzing every word. Trying to figure out how a person could craft such brilliant stories. He was my literary idol.
Now, with Salinger’s passing, I have a different feeling: excitement. I am certainly not excited about his death. I’m deeply saddened by it. What excites me is the potential treasure trove of work that may be discovered. Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” saw print in 1965, more than forty years ago. What has the man been writing all these years? Has he been writing? Most believe he never stopped writing. Most also believe that his work had grown more and more esoteric and essentially unreadable over time, so that even if a great body of unpublished work is discovered, it won’t be near the level of Catcher. Still, I hang on to the hope that Salinger has something, or many things, that near brilliance in this unpublished work. I cling to the hope of someday reading a new J. D. Salinger novel. I want to know what’s become of the Glass Family. Forty-plus years of writing that no one has seen–that is what excites me. The fantasy of undiscovered Salinger. I smile at the thought. Maybe he’s written nothing but nonsensical gibberish, maybe he’s written nothing but letters, maybe he’s written “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over for half a decade. Who the hell knows? But I want to know. I’m dying to know.
Maybe I’ll be disappointed by what’s discovered. Maybe Salinger’s family will never let his work see the light of day. But maybe, just maybe, a new book bearing his name will emerge and speak to me like Catcher did when I was young.
It’s a mystery that may soon be solved. And I love a good mystery.
I know one thing for sure: I am as excited by Salinger now as I was then, and that’s pretty amazing.
I hope you’ve been busy, J.D.