2010, February: Solitude

The lesson is from the fifth chapter of the book of Luke, beginning at the fifteenth verse. “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

At first I didn’t have much of a reaction when I heard that J. D. Salinger had died. He might have been dead for a long time, for all I knew. He was a part of my adolescence. But my adolescence and his books have both been gone from my life for a long time. Salinger changed me when I was young, but he stopped publishing and, unlike Vonnegut for example, gave me no reason to return to him. And so it was for most of my friends. Many other generations had their own Salinger phases, and then moved on and left him behind.

Catcher in the Rye was wicked and fun, like Mad Magazine. But it was also bitter and profane, which was cool. One line was always my favorite for some reason—it popped right out of my memory bank when I started reading the obituaries: “She had a nice voice. A nice telephone voice, mostly. She should've carried a goddam telephone around with her.” The book is pretty timeless about being a teenager, but that particular line was much funnier before we all started carrying goddam telephones around with us.

Of course Catcher in the Rye didn’t become ridiculously popular for more than fifty years just because it was funny. Holden Caulfield is a teenage everyman. His irritating soul was put in the body of a well-to-do prep school boy. But Salinger captured the anxieties of all normal teenagers, so much so that Holden Caulfield became a universal figure, beyond social class, geography, and generation. As one obituary headline put it, “J.D. Salinger Dies; Teen Angst Lives On.”

As a kid, I crawled inside Holden Caulfield’s skin when I curled up with the book. It was a kind of liberation from the other stuff I had to read. The first words from Holden Caulfield go like this: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” I think I was about 13 and actually had David Copperfield as required reading at the same time. I thought Salinger, unlike Dickens, was writing about me.

Could a Salinger exist today? I think it might be awfully hard, in two ways.

First, Salinger for decades was defined by his privacy. We still don’t know what he was doing up there in Cornish all those years, beyond going to church suppers. Could anyone who writes a best-selling book in his 30s today really cut himself off so totally from the world of other people? Maybe. Every age has its eccentrics. But it’s very rare today for artists to be recognized for their art alone. To be successful, you also have to be a public performer.

But I worry even more about another way we could lose Salinger, and it’s a problem not with writing but with reading. It is so much harder now for us to lose ourselves in books, as a way to re-imagine ourselves.

It is now almost impossible to read anything without being interrupted by the bings of email and text messages. A study recently found that teenagers spend nearly eight hours every day with electronic devices—sometimes more than one at the same time. Of course we all know adults who could top that number, myself included. But how will anyone grow into adulthood if they can’t do some serious daydreaming when they are young?

In the world of always-on broadband and cell phones, the interruptions demand rapid responses. Those are people sending those messages, after all. They expect reciprocity. They make our social networks richer and tighter, but they also steal something from us.

We can still be lonely in the communications crossfire, but we can’t be alone. And that makes reading a novel different than it used to be. When we multitask, we can’t get lost in the depths of a story and imagine becoming something other than what we are. Messages from other people keep jerking us back to the here and now.

Fantasy computer games are no substitute for good stories. Reading books opens our imagination to alternative identities. And I do mean book-reading, not screen-reading with its efficient F-patterns: all the way across the top line, half way across the second line, then quickly down the left margin. When we read a book, we weave our own experiences into the abstract symbols on the page—it’s not like watching a film, taking in whatever the director gives us. Novels and poems are doors to other souls, doors through which we get to carry our own flashlights. In a world without deep reading, we may lose not just Holden Caulfield but Stephen Dedalus and every other soul-shaping coming-of-age character.

To imagine our future selves, we have to escape to lonely places, as the morning’s lesson had it, untethered from our friends, our family, and yes, even from those impatient for us to perform miracles. It’s good to dream. To paraphrase another twentieth-century masterwork, we should linger in the chambers of the sea—because when human voices wake us, then we drown.

Harry Lewis, February 4, 2009