Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.
J.D. Salinger. What can I say? He has meant more to me than any author, except maybe Jack Kerouac on his good days. I owe my literary “career,” such as it is (not to mention a certain long-winded writing style), to Catcher In the Rye and Buddy Glass. I know I’m not the only crumby author in this world to say it, but still it should be said. The chorus is loud and millions-strong. I owe a definite part of my worldview to the Glass family. My penchant for quote-collecting I owe to Buddy and Seymour. Let’s just say it: I owe my love of books, reading, and writing to Salinger, and I really can’t picture my life without those loves in it. This is what the man means to me.
Like a lot of people I read Salinger first in high school – which is actually pretty funny, a curriculum based on that book – but then I kept reading Salinger. Granted the volume of work isn’t staggeringly large – a whole four books – but its depth, belied by its simplicity, is nearly limitless. Since reading Catcher that first time, I’ve read it (and Franny and Zooey) nearly every winter, missing only a couple years here and there. Actually I’m reading it right now, which is weird. It isn’t that I empathize with Holden or the Glass family – though I do see much of myself in all of them. In fact, I find myself less and less like Holden every year, which is understandable, but I love the book more and more each time (though it’s hard to beat that first time through). With Franny and Zooey, I fall in and out of love with them every other year it seems – one year Franny will seem an insufferable phony, and then one year (as happened this year) her whole mind will just open up to me and I will love her dearly. It’s the fact that I can love or hate them, the fact that their characters – though when compared to, say, Anna Karenina, are barely sketches – they just seem so real. So full of life. It’s hard to imagine walking down the street and bumping into Anna Karenina. It’s easy, though, to run into a Holden, or a Zooey, or a Seymour. In fact, it’s impossible not to. It’s the difference between a Rembrandt and a Monet – yes, the Rembrandt is more realistic – like a photograph, almost – but, the Monet, full of color and pure abstract emotion, feels more real.
You could say the element that defines all Salinger characters is the search for Real, for Truth, simultaneous with a distrust of all things Real and Truthful. I think a great many people can identify with that paradoxical quest/curse, and this is why Salinger’s stories will endure.
It will be interesting in the coming days and years to see what happens with the supposed vault of stories and books that he has written but never published. Maybe they’re real, maybe apocryphal, maybe he ordered them burned at his death (“don’t ever tell anybody anything…”). A part of me would like to read those stories, a part of me wants his family and estate to abide by his wishes, should he have chosen to never reveal the works. And if the books don’t exist, if he just ended up an eccentric old hermit in the woods, that would be fine too. The four books we already have are, for me, enough for a lifetime of reading and rereading.