I was 13 years old in the fall of 1966, a sophomore in high school (almost 14, by the way) when my new friend Barry Cassidy gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I was already a pretty voracious reader and, sigh, an honors English student, but at the time probably the most challenging novel I had read to date was Harper Lee's wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird. Otherwise, I was into dog stories (Big Red and The Call of the Wild, for example).
And, because of my Crohns Disease, and certainty that I was going to die (by then I had been sick for four years with no end in sight) I was very much interested in reading stories of death. Books on the Alamo and the Little Big Horn, for example were examined hardcore from both sides by me. I read about Santa Anna and Sams Houston and Austin, and William Barrett Travis, trying to get stories from all perspectives, as I did Custer, but also Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
I read these stories because, to be frank, since I was not feeling well, and as said with nothing out there promising cure wise, I figured I was going to die, and so I wanted to read about death so I could know what it was like when the time came.
In other words, I felt as maladjusted as any 13-year-old, and I was sick every day.
Well, JD Sallinger's book changed things to a large degree, save it took another three years to understand the nature of the Crohns. But, within the pages of the book and the odd journey of Holden Caulfield, I suddenly did not feel so alone. For a boy, just my brother Peter's age, was just as confused and frustrated about the paradoxes of life and what people said and did as I. For I knew the book was very popular, and I knew that whoever wrote it had to understand Holden's perspective in order to convey it.
And I knew that if it sold a lot of copies, more people were probably touched by it than just me.
So, it reassured me about life and suffering and understanding in a way nothing before had. It made me not feel so alone. And, I was grateful, not to mention captivated. In fact I re-read the book every six months for a handful of years, although by then the floodgates were open and I read everything I could get my hands on.
The reclusive Mr. Salinger passed away the other day, at the age of 91. He wrote, that we know of, a handful of short story collections. Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Franny and Zooey. Like all who were fascinated by Salinger, I read them all, but none nailed me like The Catcher in the Rye.
I think he did one interview--to the local high school newspaper--adding to what was legendary, making him even more of a cult hero, to those of us devoted to the words of Holden.
That same day, Historian and Human Rights Activist Howard Zinn also passed away, at the age of 87.
Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, written from the perspective of those outside the mainstream, is a great and honest look at our culture, who we are, where we came from, and why we might be going where we are.
Almost the antithesis of Salinger's disdain for the public light, Zinn spoke and lectured endlessly about civil rights and human rights and dignity everywhere.
They were both great men and influences, and we are all lucky to have had their words. Neither minced his words, and though both could be sentimental, neither wallowed in it. They wrote what they saw. But, what was compelling was that they did it better than most everybody else.
Even better, they did it, as Holden Caulfield would say, "with none of that David Copperfield kind of crap."
Thanks guys. We will miss your presence.