Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writers on Reading

Reading Salinger's Characters Reading

"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. That doesn't happen much, though." (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye)

Rereading J. D. Salinger I am impressed with the books that his characters are reading. In the beginning section of Franny and Zooey, Lane Coutell is engaged by his classmate, Ray Sorensen in a brief interchange regarding Rilke's "Duino Elegies" which they both are supposedly reading for a class on modern European literature.  Another example is a moment, merely an aside, when reading and literature intrudes again within a few pages. Franny has arrived on a train and she and Lane settle in to relax at a cafe, one frequented by the "intellectual fringe" of students at the college, to which, apparently, Lane and Franny belong. Soon the conversation includes references to Flaubert and Dostoevsky and the true nature of the "bon mot".   The contrast between Lane, who has written a paper on Gustave Flaubert (a writer whose search for authenticity is his hallmark) and Franny whose search for authenticity in her own life is floundering seems key to this short story. Disappointingly, Franny seeks solace in mysticism (The Way of a Pilgrim).

The presence of literature as a natural part of the background and conversation is not surprising in Franny and Zooey, but it is, if not surprising, certainly interesting in the beginning chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist (anti-hero), Holden Caulfield, is not an example of a serious student, in fact he is being asked to leave Pencey Prep because he was flunking most of his subjects and was "not applying" himself to his schoolwork. However, he is clearly not unintelligent, but rather just uninterested in the formal academics as practiced at Pencey Prep, or the several previous schools he had successively been asked to leave. In spite of this lack of interest in his schoolwork Holden is a reader. And quite an eclectic reader in spite of his own somewhat contradictory assessment: "I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot."(p 18). Obviously, before you are one quarter of the way through the book you are aware that he is not 'literally' illiterate, and that you often must be attentive to what Holden does rather than what he says, in spite of his fascinating narrative voice. It is this voice that more than anything brings this reader back to the book again and again. But, regarding his reading and choice of authors, he has good taste in literature, at least for a teenager. For I, too was taken with Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, although I found Clym Yeobright to be just as interesting, if not more, as Eustacia Vye - the heroine who Holden likes enough to want to "call old Thomas Hardy" and have a chat (how interesting that would be).  Now, decades after I first read Catcher, and even more since, at about the same age as Holden I fell in love with the novels of Hardy, I find it fascinating that reading is an important aspect of the characters of J. D. Salinger, both when they are budding intellectuals and when they are merely fascinating "illiterates" on a journey of discovery.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Bantam Books, New York. 1967 (1951)
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. Litlle, Brown & Co., New York. 1989 (1961)


Brian Joseph said...

It has been a while since I last read Catcher in the Rye. I should reread it soon. When I do I will pay particular attention to Holdon's reading list.

Holdon really does show a lot of layers under his seemingly tough skin.

James said...


Thanks for your observation. Salinger's characters have both interesting voices and depth of personality.

smellincoffee said...

Without question my favorite aspect of literature is the ability to have conversations with people who have been gone for ages. We can't literally call them up on the phone, but to read is to listen to someone speaking inside our heads, and our thinking is the response. Our own heads skew what we read, but there remains text and ideas that is purely the authors, wholly new to us -- and something to genuinely connect to.

James said...

I agree that is one of the joys of reading.