Thursday, January 28, 2010

They were giants

J.D. Salinger died today, precisely one year and one day after John Updike passed away.

Never have there been two more different men. They were literary giants, both of them. But in very different ways.

I read The Catcher in the Rye in junior high school and, I'm ashamed to say, hated it. For some reason, it just didn't resonate with me. It felt forced to me then, somehow. Like Salinger sat down and decided to write like an angry kid might sound. As a kid of about Holden Caulfield's age, it just didn't ring true.

I read it again many years later, quite by accident. I was shopping in a little used book store in East Grand Forks, N.D., while stationed nearby in the Air Force. I was looking for something else but saw that it was marked down to a buck, so I bought it. It was a dog-eared paperback -- hell it was probably twenty years old then. But I read it in one night. I was stunned at how powerful it was, how it moved me.

Clearly, I wasn't ready when I read it the first time. Perhaps I wasn't angry enough, disaffected enough. I was into the punk scene of the late 1970s and this, this book, spoke to me in a language I could understand. Wow.

I came to John Updike in the early eighties, during my first marriage. I bought Rabbit is Rich and fell in love. I have since read every Rabbit book, along with most everything Updike has written. His prose sings. It's lyrical and moving. It excites me every single time I read him. No one, with the possible exception of Stephen King, has been more of an influence on me than Updike. If only I could write half as well as he did.

So why write a post about both men on the day of Salinger's death? Well, because reading his name online today reminded me of how a book becomes the book only when we are ready for it to. Salinger didn't move me when I was a kid, but it changed my life as a young man. And Updike's longing, his loving look at suburbia, marriages and lives falling to ruin, moved me at a moment in my life when I was going through similar circumstances.

This is the power of great authors, of great books. Like great music, they can change lives. But only when our lives are ready to be changed.

Rest in peace. Both of you.

Revision update: I got through yet another whole chapter today. Yay! Six down, twenty-two to go.


  1. I didn't even get 20 pages into it. Not my cuppa, I guess. But the effect that Salinger had on the world (and high school curriculums!) was - and is - a lasting one.

    I just hope that they don't use his death as an excuse to publish that unauthorized sequel he spent so much effort fighting. I know they'd spin it as a tribute, but the man himself made it clear that it wasn't.

  2. This is my first admission to a writer; I have never read that book. But I will now. No one liked that book as a kid. This was partially why I didn't read it. But I have heard from others as well that it is a different experience as an adult.

    It's on the list.