Farewell J.D., We Hardly Knew Ye
Until I was thirteen, I had a tendency to stutter when called upon in class. My mother claims that it had more to do with the fact that I had a minor obsession with old Jimmy Stewart films and less to do with a certain fear of public speaking, as was my teacher’s diagnosis.
Either way, my father felt that a proactive way to counteract this speech impediment would be to practice reading long passages of books aloud. So after finishing dinner early one evening at some point in eighth grade, he handed me a copy of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” My dad asked me to go to my room and quietly read the first two pages to myself, and then to return to the living room.
Transfixed, I sat in my room for twenty minutes, reading and re-reading those first two pages. Here was a boy not much older than myself, writing from what appeared to be the confines of some mental health or behavioral correction facility.
I returned to the living room and my father asked me to begin reading the rest of the book out loud. Thus began my fascination with Holden Caulfield, a teenage anti-hero of our time and for all time – an indelible and enduring character to whom one cannot but compare one’s self.
Flash forward nine years. Salinger is dead. I don’t stutter much anymore, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading books out loud – to myself or anyone else. What remains is the powerful effect Salinger’s words had upon me at such a young age, and the clear and obvious fact that Caulfield is the flawed barometer for teenage dysfunction and a prism through which intellects, both young and old, might learn something true and real about the hopes and fears we all experience on the cusp of adulthood.
What have you learned? To what standards are you held by your teachers, parents and peers? How do you feel towards a majority of those individuals with whom you surround yourself? Do you know what you want out of life? Even if you knew the answers to these questions, could you articulate them? Could you find the words? Well, Salinger did.
Many of you will graduate this spring – if all goes according to plan, I will too. I haven’t yet formulated a personal bucket list of collegiate experiences that must be accomplished by early May, but with Salinger’s passing and with our own progression towards full-blown adulthood and its myriad of responsibilities, I am certain of one thing.
That is, before I’m handed my diploma, I will read Salinger’s book one more time, and you should too. Fifty-nine years after delivering a lightning bolt directly into the core of American identity, his characters remain perfectly flawed, his language remains perfectly cool and his insights (intended or not) bear equal if not more relevance to our identity than ever before.
Upon its publication in 1951, “The Catcher in the Rye” was the object of both adulation and disgust. The stream of profanity and frequent description of sexual angst and experience made the book an easy target for social conservatives. Literary academics lauded the book’s blend of disaffection, loneliness, impulse and the shortsightedness of youth. As students teetering on the precipice of graduation and its real world implications, subject matter of this ilk should be required college reading.
Some may scoff and dismiss such a suggestion. I’ve never read it, but I’ve made it this far and I can smell graduation from here, so why bother myself now? Certain stories can become redundant with each subsequent reading. Certain films lose their luster, and magazines rarely receive a second glance after the initial once-over. This tale, on the other hand, is one for the history books – a rite of passage, of sorts.
If you haven’t read it, you’ve deprived yourself of a genuine treat coupled with more than just one valuable life lesson. I read that in the tenth grade, why should I re-read it? Well, for many reasons. You were younger then, and having experienced a successful graduation from high school (one of Caulfield’s repeated and numerous failings), several years of college and the struggle to maintain sanity and vitality in the face of the wild and unforgiving world of young adulthood, Salinger’s writing will undoubtedly contain new and deeper meaning.
So for Christ sake, before all you phonies graduate, get a hold of some crumby old copy, hole yourself up in your goddam bedroom, and read Salinger’s masterpiece. It’ll change your life.
Charlie Felder is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.