We lost J.D. Salinger today.
There are a handful of books that I can honestly have changed my life, catalyzing epiphanies that transformed the way I look at the world. The Color Purple made me realize the bridge that literature could be between age and culture. To Kill a Mockingbird is the book that transformed me into a good teacher; it's the only book that I read in high school that I've taught, and I can track my growth as a teacher by how I approached the teaching of that novel. A Lesson Before Dying made me ponder the worth of the life of a man; I remember the moment that I realized that book was as powerful as it was, with the Class of 2008 as 9th graders, and I literally cried, it was so powerful. Some of Baldwin's essays just throttle me, particularly from Notes of a Native Son. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which I read in Italy so will forever associate it with a wonderful time in my life, helped me realize how style, even the simplest style, can create poignancy that can give me chills. Both Bee Season and Life of Pi made me question my existence and place in the world. Song of Solomon, which I read for the first time when I was about 30, is about Milkman Dead, who is also around 30 and also, it seemed to me, at the same crisis of existence that I found (find?) myself in at that time.
Every time I read a new book, I hope it will have the power that these have. East of Eden, which I'm about to buckle down and read for a second time, has the capacity to be right up there. But it's, of course, The Catcher in the Rye that is today's topic of discussion.
I first read it the summer after I graduated high school, and I wasn't into it. Holden felt whiny, and I just didn't get the disaffectedness or the humor. Nothing seemed to happen. I had to re-read it, though, when I did my student teaching at Michigan State. By that time, I had gone through some great times and some tumultuous times in college, including a pretty nasty depression that enveloped much of my senior year. I read it again, this time at age 22, and, for some reason, it was like a new book to me. Holden's angst wasn't exactly my angst, but it was like it. I understood his dissolution and his desire to save the kids. By this point in my life, I was pretty content, but I had seen some of life's shadows that I hadn't seen when I was in my sheltered high school experience the first time I had read it.
So, I found it deeply moving and quite funny, about five years after I had read it for the first time. I realize the cliche is that you read Catcher in high school and move onto On the Road once you hit your early 20s, but I've often been a bit late on things, and this experience wasn't any different.
I re-read it again in my late twenties, as I was teaching the book again. I found my experience with Holden much different this time. Instead of feeling the same angst as Holden, I felt so much compassion and sadness for him. This kid was using cynicism as mask, and the book was actually hopeful, and very, very sad, sadder than that second time reading it. It wasn't so much that Holden wanted to save the kids as Holden needed to be saved himself.
And so it was through this text that I realized the power of re-reading, how our reading of a book is dependent on who we are at that time in our own journey. Holden was looking for a place in the world, and, in a way, Catcher in the Rye sort of lets me know my place. It's my lighthouse. So I named my thrice-adopted, thrice-returned dog Holden, because he was also looking for his place in the world. And I often think about this experience of reading and re-reading Catcher in the Rye as a transformative one, helping me recognize the power of a great book and how it helps define who we are at certain points in our lives.
Rest in Peace, JD. Thanks for writing one of those books that changed my life.
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