There was a spare room off the main hall in the junior high wing of my elementary school. Sometimes the special ed. teachers used it for one-on-one meetings, but most of the time it sat empty save a desk, a ratty armchair, and shelves of innumerable Norton anthologies. When I was in the eighth grade, I spent a whole day sitting in that armchair, pulling pilly threads from the upholstery, reading Catcher in the Rye. It was the first time I ever skipped class.
When I read last January that J.D. Salinger had died, that’s where my mind went first, not to Cornish, New Hampshire and his forty five years of literary silence, not to the vault of unpublished works we’re all crossing our fingers for, but to a stuffy room I last saw twelve years ago. It was a hot day near the end of the school year. The chair was upholstered in a heavy fabric that made me sweat. There was no clock on the wall, and I hardly moved for hours.
I didn’t know anything about the book before I started reading except that it was important. I can’t remember now what I expected, but I’m sure it wasn’t Holden Caulfield. I was stunned by his voice. I’d never read anything so conversational and direct. I felt like he was right there in the room, skipping class, too, so he could tell me about all “this madman stuff” from last Christmas. The two of us could’ve been the only people left in the world for all I knew or cared.
Over the next few years I read all the Salinger I could find. I was disappointed there was so little, and, to be honest, the rest of his canon mostly confused me. I wasn’t ready for the subtlety of Nine Stories or the mysticism of everything else. Nothing else gripped me the way Catcher had; nothing else left me with the same impression of where I was when I read it and what that place smelled like.
I looked up when the bell rang, surprised to find myself alone with the musty smell of old anthologies and cheap wood paneling. My classmates went streaming by the door without looking in. I watched them pass, and I thought about Holden alone in New York City, the freedom of no one knowing where you are. I waited until the hallway was empty, and then I waited a little longer. The hall was so quiet when I finally left that I could hear the echo of my locker latching as I walked out.
I’ve since reread all of Salinger, and though my favorites have changed (for the moment, Just Before the War with the Eskimos and For Esmé—with Love and Squalor) nothing has had a greater effect on me than Catcher in the Rye. As an aspiring writer, it taught me all kinds of things about voice and the relationship between the narrator and the reader, but it was as a reader that I felt something crystallize, something I never knew I’d understood all along as a lover of books, and something which, as an increasingly self-conscious teen, I was beginning to lose sight of: the pleasure of disappearing for a while.
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