After JD Salinger’s death, I had been meaning to re-read Catcher in the Rye. It had not made much of an impression on me when I read it in high school, but I loved Franny and Zooey when I read it as part of a religion in literature class in college, and I similarly devoured Nine Stories and Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters on my own shortly thereafter. All those marvelous Glass siblings tossing off quotes from the Bhagavad Gita and drinking highballs in their Manhattan apartments while being quietly superior to their pedantic, workaday colleagues—those phonies who thought they understood Flaubert or who were worried about minor annoyances like jobs, money or relationships.
I picked F&Z off the bookshelf Thursday. We didn’t have Catcher in the Rye, but I was curious as to how I might find it twenty five years down the road. I don’t re-read anything (although I do go back to 4 Quartets—which was also assigned as part of the aforementioned class--now and again), and I’m always vaguely annoyed when people talk about re-reading books—as if they’ve already consumed everything of consequence, and have the time for deeper studies of the really good material. I can remember a quotation from, I think, Susan Sontag, on my copy of the Brothers Karamazov: “the novel I re-read most often.” I mean, come on: it’s like nine hundred pages, and of the many novels you re-read, Dostoyevsky is your comfort food? That sounds awfully like a humblebrag.
Anyway, I finished the book yesterday, and 2012 me did not enjoy it nearly as much as 1987 me had. I found the world weariness of these twenty year old beautiful rich kids more naïve than profound, and the many literary allusions (“I just started writing quotations from Epictetus on the classroom chalkboard”) a little grandstanding and unnecessary. But the prose flowed nicely, as the comments to one of my many mediocre college essays once stated, reducing me in a handful of words to someone who didn’t get it, and making the condemnation of such mediocre academics in the novel all the more comforting, I suppose.
So the lesson, I guess, is that who you are at the time you read it plays a meaningful part in the enjoyment of every book. I heard or read once that each book is a picture of who you were when you read it. Inspired by this, as well as the quote below from Four Quartets, I wrote the only poem I’m still proud of today. I also named a mix tape “The Evening With the Photograph Album.” That strikes me as rather less profound now than it did at the time. But I forget what was on it.
(From East Coker)
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
Here is what I wrote, about six or seven years ago, I think. I wanted to capture the idea that the books were equally good as souvenirs or kindling, but that they no longer had any of their original meaning; they had lost all aspects of bookishness. And only a very select few deserved to remain on my shelf.
Time turns books into photographs.
Histories rewritten, meanings changed.
They warm us, in the evening,
By the fire.
Note: These are the books in the photo: 4 Quartets; Le Petit Prince; Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers; The Paradox of Tarheel Politics; Dynasties and Interludes; The Purposeful Primitive