Wonderful things happen to a boy of 11 or 12 or 13. And some of those wonderful things are also awful, confusing and frustrating things. He discovers girls in a new way. He develops (in my case) acne on steroids. And he hears about this really cool book titled The Catcher in the Rye. I grew up in a house that had no books. It took some powerful peer pressure to interest me in a book, but when you’re extremely tall and skinny (at 12, I was 6’ 2” and 150 pounds) with a possibly terminal case of acne—-you long to fit in. So I read J.D. Salinger’s book. How does a Catholic boy in Louisville, Kentucky indentify with Manhattan-born Holden Caulfield? Well, it happened. And it continues to happen for millions of adolescents all over the world. Salinger was writing for adults, but it’s young people—especially 12-year-old boys—who embrace the book and sustain its legend. Transformed by reading “Catcher,” I found Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I was hooked on Salinger and his Glass family, wondering where I fit among Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey and Franny. While the Beats were proclaiming their alienation, Salinger was mainstreaming neurosis, paving the way for Woody Allen. When I exhausted the Salinger output, I longed for more. I found The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, then a biography of my President, JFK, and I was on my way to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Then Henry James, Mellville and Twain. Ultimately, even Tolstoy and Flaubert. Thomas Merton and Thomas Mann. Andre Gide, Albert Camus and Jose Luis Borges. My library grew in this time of the 35-cent Dell paperback. I once had to move to a bigger place to accomodate all my books. Then, last April, my wife of 30 years divorced me and I moved to a condo that had no room for a library of many thousands of books. I donated most of them to American University and miss them very much. But it all started with Jerome David Salinger and his magical book. Critics pounded Salinger and he went into hiding. It’s said that he continued to write, but did not publish. Too bad. I am now 50 years removed from that 12-year-old boy—-but I remember him and his immersion in “Catcher.” Critics may not have high regard for J.D. Salinger, but he got millions of young people to read. Critics also didn’t care for James Michener, but more people learned history from Michener’s novels than they did from the world’s great historians.
Jerry—-can you hear me? I know the critics hammered your books, but I loved them—and so did many millions of others. And I know your peers said you were an egomaniacal womanizing bastard. And it couldn’t have pleased you that your little fling with that young vixen Joyce Maynard ended up with her saying you were a weirdo control freak with sexual problems. And having your daughter trash you in a book and reveal that you drink your own urine was not a Hallmark family moment. But hey, as my ex-wife would tell you, we all have our little flaws. In the end, I conclude that you——and you alone—-are the guy who led me to a richly rewarding lifetime of reading.