In my experience as a high school English teacher, people either seem to love or hate J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. There's usually no middle ground; Holden is either a hero or a self-indulgent idiot, the writing is either magical or moronic, the story either speaks to a student's heart or elicits a loathing for symbolism and reading in general. This intense dichotomy is one of the main reasons why I love to teach Catcher. It's a book that demands a reaction, even if that reaction is a violently negative one.
So naturally I was excited when David Shield and Shane Salerno's new biography of J.D. Salinger hit the shelves last month. I honestly didn't know much more than the average reader about the mysterious author and was interested in knowing more. Somehow the fact that Salinger is no longer with us made it okay to finally dissect the famous recluse's life (although there were some voyeuristic guilty moments that made me wonder if the ghost of Salinger could possibly be looking over my shoulder and grimacing). I was slightly intimidated by the book's size and length (it could serve as a decent paperweight in the middle of a hurricane), but determined to make a go of it. I'm glad I did.
In all honesty, Salinger is not for everyone. The format of the book is difficult- the entire 600+ pages is a collage of interview snippets that doesn't always flow- and there were a few times when I really wished Shields and Salerno would stop analyzing every aspect of Salinger's life. While I appreciate editor's offering their commentary, I felt that these two really pushed the envelope when it came to unbiased reporting. While it might be interesting to speculate on how life influences art, and vice versa, I don't agree that every single word an author writes must come from some traumatic event in the life. That's the beauty of fiction.
So I liked this book not for its style or groundbreaking secret information, but rather because I felt closer to Salinger himself as I read about his life and his work. As a fiction writer myself, I sometimes get lost in my own head and forget that the ecstasies and woes I experience while writing are really part of the collective unconscious of writers. There was something oddly comforting in reading about Salinger's struggles. Not because I want him to be dragged, or that I want to make myself feel good by gloating over another's suffering- but because it reminds that all writers have a purpose and a vision and must learn to embrace it, no matter how slippery, no matter how challenging. J.D. Salinger has been hailed by generations as the essential American voice, but I see now that, in a dark, perhaps twistedly morbid way, he is an inspiration for the soul of a writer as well.