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The dead writers' society

catcherrye.JPGJ.D. Salinger died yesterday. The Post's obituary is here. I find myself curiously affected by the deaths of novelists I didn't really like. David Foster Wallace, for instance. I reacted to his suicide like that of a warm acquaintance, even though I'd never made it to the end of one of his books. After his death, I read "Infinite Jest" cover-to-cover. Still didn't like it.

Salinger, though, wrote the first book I can remember being truly, seriously disappointed by. I was a big reader as a kid. I liked a lot of books that were sold to me as work. And "The Catcher in the Rye" was sold to me as a book I'd actually like. But I didn't. Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy to be found in its company.

Similarly disappointing was the hushed promise that there was something rebellious and titillating in the book. I can't remember how that reputation was conveyed to me. Maybe my English teacher explained it explicitly, circling "banned" on the green chalkboard. But by the time I got to "The Catcher in the Rye," there was nothing rebellious about it. As Malcolm Jones writes, "any allure the book might have had as 'forbidden goods' was stripped away the day the first English teacher put it on a required-reading list."

But I'm still saddened by Salinger's death, just as I was by Wallace's. I react more strongly to the deaths of authors I don't like than authors I love. Normal Mailer, for instance. I loved his books. We had a perfectly respectable reader-writer relationship. We're cool. But when a Salinger dies, or a Wallace, it's like losing an estranged family member. I can hear about them, and read their books, but the chance to have a relationship with a living author whose works I can anticipate and words I can follow is gone.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 29, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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Comments

The real story here is that with Vonnegut gone a few years ago, Kerouac and all those guys out of the picture for years, and now Zinn and Salinger like a one-two punch, our nation's supply of vaguely subversive things for teenagers to read is dangerously dependent on dead writers. What is Barack Obama doing to safeguard this crucial national resource? Clearly we need to institute a draft to promote greater alienation among creative types, or at least try and get some English majors exposed to more interesting drugs.

Posted by: RobK_ | January 29, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Give "The Catcher" another thought: Holden's obsession with phoniness is a juvenile addiction, for sure, but what he's really seeking is the antidote to phoniness -- authenticity. We could use a dose of that antidote today. -Shane, Omaha

Posted by: spekny | January 29, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Your reaction to CITR was similar to mine when I read it in high school (a very long time ago). I always thought it was overrated as well, and Holden never became a vivid character for me. Glad to hear somebody else had the same reaction.

Just re-read another favorite of mine from the same period - "The Sot-Weed Factor" by John Barth. Now, there's a funny book with memorable characters. Of course, it's 800 pages long.

Posted by: Virginia7 | January 29, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I admired "The Catcher in the Rye" very much, even though I didn't enjoy it. It's one thing to describe so well one can identify and be inspired; it's quite another to capture what isn't pretty but be just as pure.

Posted by: keilprti1 | January 29, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Read Salinger's short stories. They are *much* better.

Posted by: constans | January 29, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy in its company."

I agree totally. And as a result, I've never understood people's fascination with Salinger. Because, let's face it, if CITR isn't a great novel, then there isn't enough 'there' in "Franny and Zooey" and Salinger's short stories to be worth making a big deal over their author.

In comments, spekny says: "Holden's obsession with phoniness is a juvenile addiction, for sure, but what he's really seeking is the antidote to phoniness -- authenticity."

Well, maybe, but at least for the first 2/3 of the book, which is all I could force myself to suffer through, he's not seeking it very hard: he's a shallow soul who avoids dealing with the lack of anything real inside himself by finding everything else phony, across the board.

Maybe there's something at the end of the novel that redeems the dreary journey leading up to it, but it's hard to imagine what.

Posted by: rt42 | January 29, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Agree on Sot Weed Factor, which was a very enjoyable read (a long time ago). I too found Catcher overrated and over recommended -- the yammering of a disgruntled prep school student as a source of subversiveness -- that's too vague for me. I can't be particularly saddened by Salinger's death -- he was 91, for goodness sake. Wallace's death was sad, the death at 12 of a friend of my son was brutally, inhumanly sad. But the death of a prominent guy at 91, a cause for reflection perhaps but not sadness.

Posted by: bdballard | January 29, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm in agreement with constans. Read everything Salinger wrote, except Catcher.

Franny and Zooey is one of the loveliest books I know. I can't read the ending without getting choked up. Raise High the Roof Beams Carpenters & Seymour is pretty good too.

Posted by: Rob110 | January 29, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

You didn't like Holden because he was "miserable" and "alienated." Good Lord. You guys must have been one happy group of teenagers. How could anybody condemned to spend hours every day hanging around with teenagers - teenagers! - not be miserable and alienated?

Posted by: ostap666 | January 29, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

There was an article in the New York Times a few months back about lack the lack of enthusiasm among current teenagers for Catcher in the Rye. According to the article, most young readers responded to him as you did--as as self-absorbed weenie. That was also my though when I read it as a teenager about 35 years ago. There was probably something about the era that might the book's particular style of rebellion against "phoniness" captivating. Popular art continually harps on the same tired theme. What was the movie, "Revolutionary Road" if not another faux-brave protest against burgeois conformity?

Posted by: madhoboken | January 29, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

rt42: Holden ultimately finds authenticity in spending time with his little sister.

Posted by: spekny | January 29, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I'll just paraphrase my friend who teaches HS English:

"Students today can't relate to the story of some young rich kid who takes an all expense paid vacation to NYC just to mope around and be miserable despite not having even one real problem in his life, at least no problems that even compare to the pressures, poverty, drugs, and death my students live with."

Posted by: nylund | January 29, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Wow. "Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy to be found in its company."

I'm disappointed. I feel like anyone who can't possibly understand what it's like to be a Holden Caulfield, to rail against the "phonies" and search for authenticity, has either led a pretty charmed life, or has accepted authority and conformity without question. Even if you don't like Holden, how can you not feel sympathy for him, or understand where he's coming from? When I read Catcher as a teenager (about 15 years ago, now) I felt for the first time that someone in the world understood what it was like to be me--to be thoroughly miserable in a world where if you're smart and grow up a certain way, there are expectations you're asked to fulfill almost from the moment you're born. Holden Caulfield's alienation may have turned you off, but I found Holden hopeful, not narcissistic. He wanted to like the world; he wanted the world to be better than it was. Salinger's books are all wonderful, but this one in particular gave me comfort in knowing that I was not alone in feeling isolated and separated from the world.

Posted by: anoelle | January 29, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

*this one in particular gave me comfort in knowing that I was not alone in feeling isolated and separated from the world.*

What happened is that you might have just happened to come across the book during the 6-12 month time interval in which your mindset overlapped with Holden's. It's a phase that lots of people have grown out of by the time they get to the book. You're not *supposed* to identify with Holden.

The people who, in real life, are railing against phonies are, ironically, people so self-absorbed that they can't see how they're spouting a stream of trite cliches. It's fine to portray a character in a book like that. It's not fine for teachers to present the character as a person that the students are supposed to relate to. Because a lot of students aren't going to or even might be embarrassed by the idea.

Posted by: constans | January 29, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Franny and Zooey is very good. Similarly disappointed with CTR.

Posted by: StokeyWan | January 29, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

He's rich. Therefore, he ought to be happy. Ok, then. I guess money does buy happiness.

Say, you guys ought to try reading "Notes from the Underground." World class whiner, that guy.

Posted by: ostap666 | January 29, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

"Notes from the Underground" may have a narrator who is a whiner, but the writing is HILARIOUS. The central character reminds me a bit of George Costanza of "Seinfeld" fame.

It's been a long time since I picked up Catcher in the Rye -- it kind of blends in my imagination with A Separate Peace, which I read in the same 10th grade English class. My hazy recollection is that it was a pretty good read, but it's not a book that I'd consider to be a profound influence on my life.

As far as Salinger's passing goes, the fact that he's essentially dropped out for decades means that nothing has really changed. I guess I was more saddened by the passing of director Eric Rohmer -- who amazingly continued to be productive until the end. For all these years Salinger might as well have been dead.

I suspect for some, his passing may present a more immediate reminder about mortality (e.g. as a rough contemporary). I remember an older co-worker who talked about what a revelation it was to read "Catcher in the Rye" for the first time. I suspect part of the reason that the book may not have the same potency is due to the fact the book's innovations have become absorbed into mainstream culture. Viewed from this distance, it may be that we take its innovations for granted.

Posted by: JPRS | January 29, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Yezz, Ezra, are you trying to prove this NYT article right? http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/21/weekinreview/21schuessler.html?_r=2&hpw

Posted by: JEinATL | January 29, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

@anoelle FTW
"I felt for the first time that someone in the world understood what it was like to be me--to be thoroughly miserable in a world where if you're smart and grow up a certain way, there are expectations you're asked to fulfill almost from the moment you're born. Holden Caulfield's alienation may have turned you off, but I found Holden hopeful, not narcissistic. "

yes, yes, 1000 times yes.

For nihilism see, e.g., Fathers and Sons; Turgenev, Ivan

Posted by: ajw_93 | January 29, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

The Catcher in the Rye is wasted on anyone younger than forty. Most kids, even good readers, don't realize that they are dealing with a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Really, it shouldn't be on high school reading lists. I had the same reaction as yours when I read it as a young person decades ago. I found Holden irritating.

I picked it up again in my late forties, having bought it for my daughter to read, and read a completely different book. The clues are all there on the first couple of pages but young readers aren't sophisticated enough to pick them up. It's not about simple teenage angst, or phoniness; it's about despair. And Holden Caulfield, who is experiencing the despair, along with his whole family, doesn't know what's happening. That is what makes him an unreliable narrator. The second time around I wanted to hug him. He really is one of the most amazing, lovable characters in fiction, but I reckon you have to be middle aged and a parent to see it. Come back to it in a decade or so, Ezra. It's an extraordinary book.

Posted by: ceska1 | January 29, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I always found Renaissance and 18th Century literature to be far more compelling.

Posted by: leoklein | January 29, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: I agree with your assesment. Salinger was obviuously a gifted author, as he channeled Holden in a way that people, many years after reading it, still react to strongly. CITR's great accomplishment is that it does capture a character's voice so well that we almost forget it was a work of fiction rather than some kind of biography. Indeed people discuss the book almost entirely as a reaction to Holden, rather than any other way. So, I am sad that Salinger did not apply his talents to full length subject matter that could have engaged me more. Maybe I should give his short stories a try.

When I read CITR, I thought I was supposed to like Holden, but I just could not. I was not sure either how a very small moment in the end was supposed to redeem him and show his humanity-- I read that chapter several times thinking I had missed something. It is certainly possible to like a book and not like its main character. Maybe this is the secret to "getting" this book.

It's hard to feel empathy for someone who is assured of success, even if he does not care to want it. In that sense, Holden is the biggest phony of them all. Maybe that is the point?

Posted by: waltercurrin | January 29, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I hold nothing against Salinger, but give me Carson McCullers any day of the week.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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