In J.D. Salinger’s only novel, the much-beloved (and just as often loathed) The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish 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.” Whether you’re a reader, a writer, or both, you can most likely name an author – or several – whom you feel the same way about. He may have been chagrined to know, but Salinger is just the sort of writer who fits that description for me. Most who know me also know that he’s my favorite writer, but I didn’t become acquainted with his work until the year of his death. Missing out on knowing and being influenced by his work while the author was still alive is one of my many literary misfortunes, but it was certainly better to be late to his work than to have never known it at all, at least for me. What resulted was an honestly personal reading experience, an experience where reading met with reflection to create a sort of bright self-realization. I was fascinated with his writing style, which I think gave my own something to connect with. I absolutely loved his use of words; I’d catch myself re-reading paragraphs and flipping back through the books to find a favorite line now and again. And of his message, I felt a certain understanding that endeared me to him all the more.
Some people have said that Salinger wasn’t an easy man to like (and neither, I think, is his writing for a lot of people). Born and raised in Manhattan, he was famously elusive, inclined to look down his nose at critics, and unimpressed (as well as unsuccessful) with the school system. He was kicked out of the private school he attended in his youth before continuing at a military school and later dropping out of NYU. He became reclusive shortly after the beginnings of his success with Catcher, utterly untouchable for the droves of inspired young intellectual fans.
What I think resonates with me so much about his writing is this feeling of every sentence being an expression of the truths beneath the human surface. It’s not always pretty – Holden’s cynicism, for example, and the way Franny Glass finds so much fault with society – but there’s something very real about it to me. Salinger’s characters think deeply about all the ups and downs of life, examining them, and while one could argue that they focus all too generously on the downs it could also be said that facing life’s difficulties can somehow make them appear a little bit smaller, a little less worrisome. That’s what I take from Salinger’s work.
If you’ve never read Salinger, here’s a rundown of his work. Aside from Catcher (published in 1951) his surviving published works include a short story collection and two joint novella/short story collections: Nine Stories (including works written between 1948-53, published together in ’53), Franny and Zooey (a short story from ’55 and novella from ’57, published together in ’61), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (two novellas, ’55 and ’59, published together in ’63). A majority of his work was first seen in The New Yorker. The recurring Glass family – which includes siblings Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey, and Franny – appear throughout all three of these publications. In their youth the Glass siblings were young geniuses made famous from their appearances on a radio quiz program. Seymour committed suicide shortly after his marriage – due largely to experiences in the war – and a lot of the Glass stories often deal with the effect his death had on the rest of the family. Buddy was said to be Salinger’s alter-ego and it’s believed that Salinger intended for Buddy to be the author of The Catcher in the Rye, connecting the Glass family into even his classic novel. Buddy also serves as the narrator for the majority of the stories involving the Glass family, such as the Franny short story and the Zooey novella.
If memory serves, the order in which I read his work was Franny and Zooey first, then The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, and lastly Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Since that sequence worked for me, I suppose it’s the one I would recommend. Coincidentally the last novella I read, Seymour: An Introduction, turned out to be my favorite. Perhaps by then I’d gotten better acquainted with Salinger’s ideas and the tone of the story was more appealing to me.
If you have already read Salinger, I’d love to know what your thoughts on his writing have been, which books you read first and which ones are your favorites. Or, if you detested your high school experience of The Catcher in the Rye, I’m curious to know about that, too. He’s one of those writers who draws out just about every reaction imaginable to his work.