What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wished 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. — Holden Caulfield in Chapter 3, The Catcher in the Rye
On January 27th, 2010, I must have referenced The Catcher in the Rye about 15 times. This was really nothing new. I’d been doing that regularly for a couple of years, ever since I downloaded the voice print version of the book read by Ray Hagen to my iPOD. If I couldn’t sleep, I would listen to Mr. Hagen reading one of my favourite books. Usually I’d pass out around the point in the book where Mr. Spencer told Holden, “Life is a game, boy!” then wake up with Holden’s sister Phoebe saying, “If you go away, you won’t be able to see me in the play.”
My most memorable episode took place one night in a hotel in a rural part of India. The electricity had gone out for the night and my jet lag was not letting me sleep. So, in a pitch-dark room with no TV, and with crawly creatures exploring my luggage, I put a sheet over my head (to avoid the cockroaches) and listened to The Catcher in the Rye, praying my iPOD battery would last though the night.
With all the pages of the Salinger’s prized work stuck between my ears for most of the night and day, it is not surprising I would talk about the novel so often.
Back to January 27th. I had pushed the novel on my wife to read. On our drive to work I discussed with her what a spoiled brat Holden Caulfield is. At work, a colleague asked me if I knew of any uplifting novels for a male client of hers. I told her I couldn’t think of one off the top of my head, but that The Catcher in the Rye was probably the last book I would recommend. I went on to explain that Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon) and John Hinckley (who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan) both claimed to be fans of The Catcher in the Rye, which led my colleague to widen her eyes and wonder aloud who would ever allow that book in schools. And finally, I found out the last name of the owner of the coffee shop I frequent was Ackley [a character from The Catcher in the Rye]. Well, that did it! I must have called her “Ackley Kid” 20 times while I was there, much to her annoyance.
Later that afternoon, I had just logged out of my Yahoo account when I saw on the Yahoo homepage the famous picture of Salinger, wearing a grey suit with a white shirt and black tie. I read that Salinger had passed away. I thought about it for a moment and walked out of my office and told a few of my co-workers, to which many of them responded “Weren’t you just talking about him?” That was an understatement.
As you may have noticed so far, I talk about The Catcher in the Rye a lot, not just because I listen to it on my iPOD when I am bored travelling or having trouble sleeping. Over the past three years, I have taught the novel to Grade 9 and 10 students roughly 30 times while I was teaching at Elite Academy. I love researching facts about the book and Salinger and then sharing them with the students.
Even before Salinger’s death, I would Google him to see if there were any sightings of him. In 2006, I remember one student asking me how long Salinger had been dead, even though the biography my student supposedly read for homework clearly stated he was still alive.
I was amazed when one grade 9 student who had only been in the country for four months wrote a great essay explaining how she wished people would leave Salinger alone and give him the peace and quiet he deserved — that just because he wrote a famous novel didn’t mean he had to accept the publicity. Or the time when I had asked the question: if you had to meet one character from this book, who would it be and why? One young man raised his hand quickly and said Sunny, the prostitute from Chapter 13. I stopped him before he could begin telling the rest of the class why he would choose to meet her.
Finally, I remember how I could never explain to the students, in my own words, what the final few sentences of the novel meant. I’m referring to when Holden is talking about his characters and how he misses them. Why would we miss someone if we wrote about them? Sure, I could have found out what other people thought by reading their essays on the novel or going to Sparknotes for analysis, but it would not have felt right.
A few weeks after Salinger’s death, I am beginning to understand what Holden meant — when you are writing about a person who you will never meet again, you will miss what they had given you. I never met Salinger and had not picked up his novel until I was in my late 20s, but the past few years of teaching The Catcher in the Rye, researching Salinger and reading his other short stories have made a difference for me as a reader and a writer.
It was after reading The Catcher in the Rye that I truly began to write for myself and stopped worrying about what others thought of my work. But knowing Salinger is gone — and that I will never hear from him again — makes me sad. After talking about him for so long, for the first time I have written about him, and now I wished I hadn’t done so. I know this will sound weird since I never met him, but I guess it’s because I miss him for the inspiration he gave me.
Time Magazine cover, September 15, 1961
Feature photo: by Gary Bridgman, Creative Commons
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