Article Published in THE STATESMAN
I remember my first encounter with Catcher in the Rye. A school friend pulled it out of his bag and showed it to me proudly and I have not forgotten the its sleek gray post-modernistic cover and no-nonsense font. “This has to be read,” he said with a decided finality that I unfortunately did not share, preoccupied as I was with products of lesser literary merit whose covers had to be hastily covered with newspaper dust jackets.
The book, J.D. Salinger’s first novel, became an anthem of youthful angst in the fifties. Its popularity soared when it was banned and has never dipped since. It is still hotly debated, criticised or praised and figures fairly high in the sales of amazon.com. Controversy over the book raged again when John Lennon’s assassin asked the former Beatle to sign a copy of the book on the morning of the assassination. The evocative monologue of its narrator, Holden Caulfield (who gave “phony” a new depth and meaning), and his struggles with depression, nervous breakdown and the whole adult world have long since acquired a literary halo. He has been compared with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Huckleberry Finn and even Hamlet. Salinger instantly turned into a literary icon, shunned the public eye and became a complete recluse. A critic recently labelled Salinger’s long silence “ an enduring and powerful work of art.” His last published piece of writing was seen in The New Yorker as far back as 1965, though it is said that the author, now in his eightees, continues to write.
Recluse he might be, but the world is not letting him be at peace. Every once in a while something new comes up to rail at the fortress around the Salinger persona. About two years ago, Joyce Maynard, who lived with him for nine months when she was eighteen and he was 53, published her memoir about their romance. Maynard was roundly chastised in literary circles for trying to exploit her relationship with a famous man. Others, who wrote in her defence, believe that she did what she had to – everybody needs to put the kids through college- and the relationship was one in which she, an adoring innocent young fan, had been exploited by the proverbial dirty old man. Sotheby’s, incidentally, clinically above such matters of mere detail proceeded to sell his letters to her for a neat 156000 dollars.
Now his 44-year old daughter, Margaret Salinger, has come out with “Dream Catcher: A Memoir”. She brings out the seamier side of living with J.D. Salinger- his brief marriage with a young Nazi party functionary whom he arrested during the war, his strange habits and his changing fancies for varying disciplines- mysticism, yoga, homeopathy, acupuncture, scientology, Christian Science and so on. She indicts him for keeping her mother a virtual prisoner and abstaining from sex. The daughter’s allegation: that she was a mere guinea pig for his latest fancies and suffered a most difficult childhood. She chronicles her bouts of bulimia, panic attacks, chronic fatigue and other such disorders. Margaret Salinger holds that she has written the book as a therapy and to ensure that her son understands the complex family history. But critics sympathetic to J.D. Salinger challenge her thesis that he is neurotic and eccentric, run down her literary merit and imply that she is trying to exploit her father’s fame, at his cost.
Like in the case of the Maynard book, the battle over the issue is well and truly joined – should she or should she not have dared to once again question the legend. I am sure that it will go on, at least for a few weeks- in the process, a reasonably good sale of Ms Salinger’s book appears to be ensured.
It has been a slippery slope so far down the digital highway. It began with an electronic diary and moved on to the cell phone. The diary thankfully went dead on me but I confess I find the cell phone useful and even wonder, in my weak moments, how I ever did without it. The next thing on the horizon is a personal digital assistant or the PDA that fits all the required information in your palm and robs you of all good excuses that make life so interesting. The cognoscenti i.e. my fifteen year old son, however, say that the time to buy has not yet come. We are waiting for the time the visor outdoes the palm (doesn’t that sound cryptic?). Then we shall move in, crocodile leather cases thrown in, pulling out our PDA at unsuspecting folks who only wanted to give us their phone number or invite us for dinner on a certain date.
Beyond that looms a personal nightmare - the e-book. This new invention with its backlit screens, moving images, in pocket size and lightweight is the threat to my overflowing bookshelves, my favourite bookstores and my abundant public libraries. It is the sleek demon which is being fashioned to eliminate such joyful things as book fairs, second hand book shops, bookmarks cut from greeting cards, round coffee cup stains on borrowed books. The arrival of the e- book is already suggesting major changes in the world of authors and publishers. As it has become possible for anyone to become an instant literary critic and review books on amazon.com, it will be possible for anyone with a story to tell to publish over the net. In that rather frightening literary landscape, books will then be printed on demand from corner kiosks or online. For those who dare to see, the evidence is already here. Stephen King has done two books exclusively for online reading. 400,000 copies of the first- Riding the Bullet- were downloaded in the first fortyeight hours. So hold on those old books. Future generations will gaze upon them in awe and, who knows, Sotheby’s may come calling.