“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish 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.”
— J.D. Salinger (Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye)
Old Holden and I, we think alike. Except for one thing – Holden went on to say, “That doesn’t happen much, though.” For me, it happens all the time. I’m a voracious reader and I fall in love with author after author as I read their books. I want to be friends with them, maybe get a cup of coffee with them, maybe ask them to come along when I go to the dog park or take a road trip. And when I find out that a favorite author has died, it hits me hard.
Working at Legacy.com, I see outpourings of grief whenever a celebrity or public figure dies. And I might feel it, a little bit… for an actor or musician I liked, or a politician who stood up for my beliefs. I know I’ll notice their absence in the world.
But when an author I loved dies, that’s when I really understand that deep grief for someone I’ve never met. The grief is in knowing I’ll never again get that thrill of sitting down and turning to the first page of their new book. I can reread my old favorites – and I definitely will, and I’ll still love them – but it’s not the same.
I’m thinking about all this today because October is National Book Month… not that I really needed an excuse to think about the many authors I love. They’re all sitting behind me on my bookshelf (smiling and waving – wondering when I’m going to ask them to join me at the dog park). Let me tell you about one of my favorites. He died this past January, and the news made me gasp, and then cry.
I’m talking about J.D. Salinger, creator of old Holden, a character who was maligned and loved in equal measures, much like Salinger himself. He was a strange man by most accounts, whose best known quality was his reclusiveness – his unknowability. I had just been thinking of him a few days before his death – in fact, I had been wondering if we would hear about it when he died, or if the news would be guarded as closely as Salinger’s privacy was. I wondered if maybe he had already died and we just didn’t know about it. After all, he was 91 years old.
Obviously, we heard – and the news stories went on and on about Salinger’s hermitic life and the reports of his strangeness. Honestly, I’ve never cared if he was strange. He probably was – creative genius often goes hand in hand with a tendency toward the odd. For me, what matters is the genius, not the odd. So instead of worrying about whether he saved his fingernail clippings in a jar, I remember him by rereading his books (not for the first time) and by thinking about how his words have spoken to me.
When my mother was a college sophomore in 1961, Franny and Zooey was published. Salinger was already famous by then for his previous works, like The Catcher in the Rye, but something about Franny and Zooey spoke to my mom – enough that she named a baby bunny Zooey, and enough that she gave me my own copy of the book 30 years later when I was a college sophomore. I had already read Catcher too, just like my mom, but also like Mom, it was Franny and Zooey that grabbed me. These brilliant, clever people Salinger wrote about, with their funny and sometimes tragic lives – I wanted to know them, to have them in my life, to have Zooey Glass give me a pep talk from the bathtub too. Catcher is an iconic book for many, and I like it, but Salinger’s studies of the Glass family (F&Z; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction; and some of the works in Nine Stories) are the books I have found myself reading over and over again for almost 20 years.
I can still picture the book rack in the back corner of a Davenport, Iowa, thrift store where I found my copy of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction. It was just after I’d finished my first read of Franny and Zooey, and I was hungry for more Salinger. I practically ran to the counter with my 25-cent find. Some of the pages are starting to fall out, but I still have it. I’ve written in it, gotten sand in the binding, accidentally torn a page or two, and loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for a new copy.
I can still remember lying in bed, reading that same book and finding a line that was quoted in a favorite song (“Polar Bear” by Ride). I was so surprised and delighted that I jumped out of my dorm room bed and ran down to the lobby, where I photocopied the page and highlighted the line. Then I drove over to my friend Shane’s apartment (as my music guru, he had been the one to introduce me to the band) and left the photocopy in his mailbox. It was the middle of the night. There aren’t a lot of authors who can inspire me to get up at three in the morning and share their words.
I can still feel the hollowness I felt the first time I finished the selection from Nine Stories in which Seymour Glass – a recurring character who I particularly love – kills himself. It was like receiving word of a friend’s death, but not having anyone to console.
In Seymour, an Introduction, Salinger writes about Seymour – a strange and troubled and funny and highly intelligent man, maybe a bit like his creator. In a letter to his brother Buddy, Seymour offers some writing advice. 19-year-old me, on reading the novella for the first time, underlined this passage and dog-eared the page:
“Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.”
You can view obituaries and Guest Books for J.D. Salinger and other beloved authors at Legacy.com.