There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.
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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
The Catcher in the Rye has consistently sold tens of millions of copies every year since it was published over 60 years ago. In Holden Caulfield, Salinger channeled the melancholy of Hamlet and invented a genre of angst exploited and expanded by Sarte, Camus and others. It resonates because we can all relate to teenage angst.
I think God let us be parents so we can understand Him better. He lets us experience childhood so we can understand innocence, adolescence so we can understand folly and adulthood so we can understand responsibility. He also teaches us context.
As we get older and hopefully wiser, we look back and smile at the problems that seemed so big when we were seven and seventeen. Among other things, growing-up is about perspective which is the gateway to wisdom.
What makes a book great? Some books regularly show up on “the greatest list” of literature and many are almost entirely unread or unreadable by contemporary audiences. Authors like Faulkner and Joyce are known for their difficult prose and it’s hard to imagine books like Light in August or Ulysses selling a single copy today.
The Catcher in the Rye has consistently sold tens of millions of copies every year since it was published over 60 years ago. Granted, banal books like Fifty Shades of Grey have also sold in the tens of millions, but most tend to be pan flash amusements that grow cold in time.
Something between the simple words of its first person narration catches in the gullet and has sparked both reflection and action – occasionally with horrific consequences – in generations of readers.
In Holden Caulfield, Salinger channeled the melancholy of Hamlet and invented a genre of angst exploited and expanded by Sarte, Camus and others. When Sylvia Plath says in “The Bell Jar “I felt wise and cynical as all hell” you can almost see a copy of Catcher sticking out of her purse. Yes, the existential roots were already in place, but the rebellion and sociological seismic shifts of the late 50’s and 60’s were still ahead. Salinger might not have invented them, but his influence is undeniable.
So does that make the book great?
I can’t say it was enjoyable to read, nor do I recommend it as beach reading for a breezy summer day. It is dark and frustrating and most of the time I wanted to skim to the end to get past the droning whine of Holden Caulfield.
That said, my contextual understanding of its resultant ends made the means worth the trip.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.
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We readers love our authors and when their books are truly great, we feel a kinship. That can be truly frustrating when authors simply won’t let you know them, like Marilynne Robinson does here. When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays that successfully strike a balance of scholarly depth and conversational approachability, and the conversation is rich. Lucky us.
I read this book as supplementary reading to Housekeeping and pounced on the passages that illumined her fiction. It felt a little like a cheat sheet and the guilty pleasure reminded me of dialing up Dr. Robinson at night to discuss Ruthie and Sylvie after dinner.
I had a Chinese student once who wrote movingly about a colony of exiles to the frontier of Mongolia who were treated as enemies of the people because they were mathematicians, or because they played the cello. This was done in the name of democracy. I hardly need to mention to this audience that if such standards had been applied at the time of the American Revolution, our democracy would have deprived itself of that whole remarkable circle we call the Founding Fathers, and your own Mr. Jefferson would have been the first to suffer denunciation.
The Constitution, to which appeal is made so often these days, could never have been written. We are profoundly indebted to the learnedness, in fact the intellectualism, of the Founders, and if we encouraged a real and rigorous intellectualism we might leave later generations more deeply indebted still. But the current of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. We are in the process of disabling our most distinctive achievement—our educational system—in the name of making the country more like itself.
Odd as the notion might sound, it is well within the range of possibility.
To cite only one example, I have seen trinkets made from fragments of Ming vases that were systematically smashed by Mao’s Red Guard. If we let our universities die back to corporate laboratories and trade schools, we’ll have done something quieter and vastly more destructive.
The book, of course is much more than a commentary on Housekeeping. Marilynn Robinson is unmatched for her ability to take a clear eyed look at Christianity and humanism and find integrated roots in the common tree. She brings context to seismic geopolitical and socioeconomic current realities by forcing the noisy topics into a thoughtful, integrated conversation. She is a living testament to the value of a broad liberal arts education.