Friday, January 29, 2010

J. D. Salinger and Multiple Readings

I suspect that the prevailing hypothesis over why Jerome David Salinger retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire is that he wanted nothing to do with what, in today's language, is called "buzz." He realized that publicity was an inevitable part of the publishing business and that a writer was just one of the boxes in the organization chart of that business. Ultimately, he had to contend with the risk that any writer who bought into the publicity game would lose his/her grip on the craft of writing and become, to invoke the word that he made so popular, a "phony." So he decided that the best way to minimize that risk would be to leave New York, basically the capital of buzz in the American literary world, and withdraw to the comfort of a more remote location.

As Blake Wilson observed in a post this morning to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, Salinger's death has now prompted a new round of the very buzz that he wanted to avoid. As might be guessed, this buzz is primarily over the question of whether or not Salinger devolved into a phony in spite of himself and his intentions. The problem is that buzz exists more for the benefit of those who generate it than for the topic being addressed, and I suspect that this problem captures the reason why Salinger wanted out of the game. At the end of the day, the game is as senseless as it is self-indulgent; and, while it may have an effect of the posthumous sale of Salinger's works, it is likely to tell us little about the experience of reading his texts.

As far as I am concerned, after I read a book, there is only one question that matters regarding the "legacy" of that book: Do I want to read it again? When Wilson included a quote from Frank Portman about the cult status of Catcher in the Rye, I think he was on to something. When I read the book in high school, it was almost as if I could not wait to read it again. It turned the New York I was just beginning to know into an amusement park ride beyond my wildest dreams, and my personal amusement was enhanced by my knowing a kid in my senior year class who was a ringer for Holden Caulfield. I was similarly drawn into the chronicles of the Glass family, as if reading them would endow me with a far more interesting home life than could be provided by those Philadelphia suburbs that sprang up with the rise of industrial parks.

What has happened to that voracious appetite? The simple answer is that it has moved on to other things (where I have tried to be careful in using "other" rather than "better"). Perhaps one of the lessons of age is that little is to be gained from a life-mission of exposing phonies for what they are. This was basically the theme of Curtiss Clayton's short film, The Man Who Counted, based on a story by John P. Sisk; but there are any number of other literary sources about how those who focus on the flaws of others often do so to hide from their own flaws. So I have no great urge to return to Salinger's texts because reading has now become that process of "Looking for (and Finding) the Beauty" that guides the way I try to listen to music.

Also, I cannot deny that, now that I am older, I have to think more seriously about whether I want to reread a text when I could be giving attention to some other text I have not yet read at all. Between the emergence of new books that I cannot resist (such as Robin D. G. Kelley's book about Thelonious Monk from which I learned about looking for the beauty) and all of those books I have purchased but not yet read, I often feel that I am not putting enough time into reading and must be more discriminating in using the time I have. Thus, while in the recent past I felt a need to return to John Dewey's Art as Experience lectures and Benedetto Croce's treatise on aesthetics, every reading choice I make has to contend with what now amounts to rooms of unread material.

In this context none of the works of Salinger offer much by way of competition. He made his point. I got it. I enjoyed the trip while it lasted. Now I would prefer to focus my attention on other trips.

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