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What is it About The Catcher in the Rye? (Here’s to You, J.D. Salinger)

At the age of 91, J.D. Salinger died Wednesday.

I remember being 16 and reading a book with a bizarre carousel horse on the cover, and being completely taken, wooed, left mumbling things about “phonies” and wishing I knew what a hound’s-tooth jacket looked like so I could work on the swift acquisition of one.

But at work yesterday, as I thought about Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye, I stopped dead when I couldn’t remember why: What made the book so good in the first place?

I pondered it on the way home—was it Holden? The writing? The plot, the metaphors, the conclusion? Hell, was it the setting? (For more on the mechanics, I’ve discovered that Write Like the Masters has some solid insights into Salinger’s prose.)

Later, the question surfaced again. It’s been said that the book was merely like a toy or a timepiece, something you were lucky to get a hold of at a specific moment in your life: the right book at the right time.

And now that he’s gone, there’s a lot of talk again about the habits of the author himself, which complicates such wondering. A recluse, rumored to do strange things (a taste for urine?) in his strange home as he wrote off the world in pursuit of strange things we may never know. (Former WD Editor Maria Schneider and I talked about him every so often, deeming him the “holy grail” of writing magazine interviews, something you could aspire to, but never would really get.)

When I finally reached my computer late last night, it occurred to me why I like the book, and Salinger, so much.

Who cares that he did whatever he may have done in his self-imposed exile, or that if I had written to pitch an interview, he never would have written back. Who cares if Catcher was a literary mirror to some for teen angst, the perfect book for the right moment in time—after all, I wonder if hitting that one moment is all most of us can hope for anyway, as writers, and as readers.

At the end of the day, my own love for the book is pretty selfish: Catcher, like all books that strike writer-types, has an energy that can make you want to write.

And back then, just like today, when merely starting to write anything can seem like an impossible task in the face of everything else that’s going on (when I was 16 I believe it was standardized tests, skateboarding and the dissolution of month-long relationships), I think that’s a pretty great thing.

Even if I never did find my own hound’s-tooth jacket.

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WRITING PROMPTS: Literary Roadshow—J.D. Salinger Edition
In 500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring, write a story inspired by or including the following (from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). Feel free to take the prompts home or post your responses in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“You’re sorry. You’re sorry. That’s very funny,” she said. She was still sort of crying, and all of a sudden I did feel sort of sorry I’d said it.
“C’mon, I’ll take ya home. No kidding.”
“I can go home by myself, thank you. If you think I’d let you take me home, you’re mad. No boy ever said that to me in my entire life.”

And/Or:

“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.
I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. "You know what I’d like to be?”

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