The Books: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies: ‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger”, by David Samuels

Next up on the essays shelf:

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is an author important to our family. I wrote about why here. Her lovely little book, Ex Libris, made up of varying essays (some touching, some hilarious) about what it is like to be a gigantic compulsive reader from the moment you exited the womb), was given to all of us by my father, for obvious reasons. Once I read it, I would talk to Dad about this or that essay, and read out loud some of my favorite passages. It made for wonderful discussions. I love her writing so much. I excerpted from Ex Libris in a series of posts. I highly recommend that book!

Since that book came to me, via my Dad, Anne Fadiman has always been on my radar. She was, briefly, the editor of The American Scholar (I had a subscription). During her reign, she instituted a special regular feature called “Rereadings”, where she asked authors to go back and reread a book that was very important to them when they were young and see how it held up. Or, not just how it held up, but how the experience was the same, or different, or whatever.

These essays have been compiled in this collection called Rereadings. Many of the books discussed I have read, but there are many more that not only have I not read but I haven’t even heard of. Glorious! Due to the nature of the topic, these essays are not just book reviews, although you do get some excellent textual analysis. They’re really more personal essays. People who only discover reading for pleasure as adults (and I have a couple of friends in that category) don’t have that long history of reading behind them. How do you analyze a book that BLEW. YOUR. MIND. when you were 14 years old (a key age, apparently, in terms of Love of Reading – studies have been done! Which I won’t link to because I’m too lazy!)

I have approached the books that blew. My. Mind. when I was 14 with fear. What if … the magic is gone? That has sometimes been the case. The books I discovered when I was 14, 15 – sometimes on my own steam, and sometimes because I had to read them for English class – were very important to me in launching my own independent reading list. That had already been happening from childhood. You know, I read one book by Eleanor Estes, I had to read them all. I read one book by L.M. Montgomery, I had to read them all. And etc. Two major books that came into my life in those crucial 14/15 years were: Catcher in the Rye (which then led me into the maelstrom of awesome that are his other books), and The Great Gatsby. Both were assigned to us in 10th grade English. I have since re-read them numerous times. It was fascinating to me how The Great Gatsby actually changed, over the course of my rereading. It changed, depending on the age I was when I reread it. THAT’S a good book. In that first reading, when I was 15 years old, I was totally in the shoes of the narrator, Nick Carraway. I found him sympathetic, I understood his awe/fear at all he saw, and Gatsby remained somewhat remote. I hadn’t had enough life experience yet to understand Gatsby. That would come later. In my most recent rereading, Nick barely registered, and Gatsby rose to take over the book. Which is clearly part of what Fitzgerald was after (having the main character of the book seen through outside eyes), but I just couldn’t grasp the enormity of that theme when I was 15 years old. Now Catcher in the Rye was another story. I thrilled to that book. My best friend J. and I were both swept away by the book – and I remember how FUNNY we found it. I read some other essays about the book and it seems a lot of people identified with Holden and his angst and anti-social stance and his grief for his brother, etc. I understood all of that, but my way in (and J.’s way in) was the humor of the LANGUAGE itself. Like … the random “goddamns” sprinkled throughout the text. We thought they were HYSTERICAL and would read passages out loud to each other, falling out of our chairs laughing. It was like he was a friend of ours who had a particularly funny turn of phrase. We ROARED about the language.

I’m so glad that I got that level of it when I was a teenager. I got all the other levels, too, but I didn’t see the book as a validation of my special-snowflake-ness. I saw it as a couple-days-in-the-life of a teenager with an interesting point of view, who knew how to put sentences together. I saw the book as a comedy. I still do. Tragic elements, of course, but J.D. Salinger’s expert construction of an unforgettable VOICE reigns supreme. It’s the kind of voice that is so unlike anything else and yet so true and inevitable that once you’ve heard it you can’t believe you lived without it. That was how I felt, from the first paragraph of Catcher in the Rye. I read that first paragraph and immediately thought; “How on earth have I lived without knowing about this book??”

So naturally, I read everything by Salinger in the fevered course of a month. There’s not much of it. Everything is pretty short. It’s not like suddenly discovering Tolstoy or Melville. Salinger’s work was self-contained, mostly short, and could be devoured in almost a single setting if you were truly dedicated.

I’ve written before about my own discovery of Franny and Zooey, and also a crucial re-reading of it when I was 25, 26. It changed the course of my life. It put a fire under me. It ignited a sense of urgency about my future, my life, that had been dormant for a while. I applied to grad school the following week. In my application essay, I referenced Zooey’s monologue to Franny. I got in to grad school. In a matter of six months, I moved from Chicago to New York. I have some regrets about that now, and on dark days (which are no longer allowed, really) I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. Or I sometimes just flat out wish I had stayed. Damn you, Salinger! But that way madness lies (literally). I realize that. That’s the power of these books, though. They aren’t just books. They are messages in a bottle. They MEAN something. If you’re open to it, they actually give you clues on how to live, and how to make your time on this planet worthwhile, relevant. It helps you to access your deepest wishes, your deepest hopes.

That was true when I read the book as a teenager, before I really understood regret. It was true when I reread the book in my mid-20s, at a crossroads. I approach Salinger with a bit of fear now. Where will he lead me to next? We had an interesting conversation here recently about J.D. Salinger.


The essay that leads off this collection is by David Samuels, and it is about Franny and Zooey, a book he has read numerous times, starting as a teenager. (Perhaps you need to read Salinger first as a teenager? I don’t know.) He describes how he picks up his old copy, filled with underlinings and notes in the margins from his teenage self. Some of these are in different color pen, which shows the years that had passed between rereadings – and are interesting road marks to his state of mind. You know, what you underline as profound when you are 14 may not be the same thing you underline at 22. FASCINATING. It’s a long essay, and I’ve excerpted just a part of it.

It’s a gorgeous collection overall. I highly recommend it.

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies: ‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger”, by David Samuels

On my second reading at age seventeen or eighteen, I found Buddy’s sense of humor more sympathetic. I liked “if my Muses failed to provide for me, I’d go grind lenses somewhere, like Booker T. Washington.” I was proud of myself for getting why the comparison between Buddy Glass and the author of Up From Slavery was funny. (“Unexpected,” I wrote, in pedantic red ink. “Not Benjamin Franklin.”) I also appreciated the description of Les Glass, later on in the book, as “an inveterate and wistful admirer of the wall decor at Sardi’s theatrical restaurant.” I underlined the phrase “theatrical restaurant,” because it was the addition of those two words to “Sardi’s” that made the joke work.

Funny or not, Buddy Glass – from the perspective of age fourteen, and age seventeen or eighteen, and even age twenty – was never as interesting as his dead brother Seymour, who left behind a deceptively simple three-line koan whose meaning tantalized and captivated me for ten years without ever quite becoming clear: “The little girl on the plane / Who turned her doll’s head around / To Look at me.” Because Seymour Glass plays only a ghostly Jamesian role in Franny and Zooey, it seems wrong to go into my idealization of him here. Why did Seymour kill himself? Was the beauty of the little girl’s gesture – is she trying to be polite, does she really think the doll is a person – not enough? Was it a protest against what the girl would become when she grew up? Or did the charming gesture contain the seeds of the adult corruption that would later destroy her soul? None of these questions can be answered within the text of Franny and Zooey. What’s here is Buddy’s practical advice to his brother: Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, since you feel must, but do it with all your might.”

Zachary Martin Glass, or Zooey, was my favorite character in the book. He is Seymour and Buddy’s Zen teachings, he is the rebellion against those teachings, he is funny and handsome, he is an actor, and he even bears a passing resemblance to Lane Coutell. (Both are objects of adolescent male identification. The demographics are different, that’s all.) If Buddy Glass made me uneasy, Zooey was a perfect stand-in. He is an airbrushed version of Buddy, a character any adolescent misfit would be happy to have as a friend, a proof of the benign and charitable intentions of his author. After twenty pages of Buddy Glass, I was happy to be finally alone with Zooey. Someone in this family was normal. At the same time, my feelings for Zooey contained a hard, uncomfortable kernel of self-hatred that never quite dissolved, no matter how many times I read the book.

But this piece of dishonesty was more than made up for by my favorite scene in the book, the bathroom scene between Zooey and his mother, Bessie Glass. Bessie is a classic. (Les Glass tap-dances his way into the text only twice, in a memory of a long-ago birthday party and as a semi-ghostly presence who proffers a tangerine to his disconsolate daughter.) She is a “svelte twilight soubrette … photographed … in her old housecoat.” The sentence that follows a few pages later is worthy of Balzac, a real beauty. The subject is Bessie’s housecoat:

With its many occultish-looking folds, it also served as the repository for the paraphernalia of a very heavy cigarette smoker and an amateur handyman: two oversized pockets had been added at the hips, and they usually contained two or three packs of cigarettes, several match folders, a screwdriver, a claw-end hammer, a Boy Scout knife that had once belonged to one of her sons, and an enamel faucet handle or two, plus an assortment of screws, nails, hingers, and ball bearing casters – all of which tended to make Mrs. Glass clink faintly as she moved about in her large apartment.

Slovenly, patched together, proceeding according to a purely comic logic, if by any logic at all, and stopping just short of the darker comedy of Beckett, Bessie’s old housecoat is the best description of domestic memory that I know. Perhaps the ability to find meaning in the memory is ultimately what saves us. Salinger never quite agrees. (Zooey is exasperated. Bessie is a dope.) Still, he is willing to give Bessie and her housecoat their due.

The love scene between Bessie Glass and her son is the answer to the love scene between Franny and Lane in Princeton, and to the lousy television script that Zooey reads in the bath. They are honest with each other. “This is supposed to be a family of all adults,” Bessie says. She is dumb as a post. But she knows that Franny is hurt and that she can’t fix it. And just when the scene might get sentimental, Buddy steps in to let us know that the eyes that used to announce the tragedy of her two dead sons now tear up with the announcement that some remote Hollywood starlet’s marriage is on the rocks.

“Why the hell doesn’t he kill himself and be done with it?” Zooey wonders of the absent Buddy. (That Buddy Glass is putting this sentence in Zooey’s mouth didn’t hit me until two readings later, in my junior year of college. I noted the additional complexity in blue.) I trusted Zooey because he was angry. “I’m a twenty-five-year-old freak and she’s a twenty-year-old freak, and both those bastards are responsible.”

That was where I always stopped underlining. I never marked the last line of the scene, when Zooey makes fun of his mother’s pitch-perfect exit (“In the old radio days, when you were little and all, you all used to be so – smart and happy and – just lovely. Morning, noon, and night), but softly, so that “his voice wouldn’t really reach her down the hall.”

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13 Responses to The Books: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman; ‘Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies: ‘Franny and Zooey’, by J.D. Salinger”, by David Samuels

  1. mutecypher says:

    I re-read Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund” a few years ago, after considering it my favorite of his books when I was 17. I had gobbled down 7 or 8 of his books in quick succession. I could only make it through the first third. I could see what I had liked as a kid (travel the countryside carving wood and having sex), but the prose and the content were just so over-romantic. I need to work up some more courage before re-trying “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf.”

    Salinger holds up much better. As do Tolkien and Conrad and Dostoevsky and…

    • sheila says:

      // travel the countryside carving wood and having sex //

      That sounds like the best vacation ever.

      I haven’t read any of his. I’m trying to think of a book I re-visited which disappointed me. Hmmm ….

      • mutecypher says:

        Yeah, it was an unusual experience for me, also. When I was 17 we moved to from Bakersfield to Fresno, in California – so I spent my senior year in high school in a completely new place.

        I think there was a lot of disequilibrium for me that year, and my choice in literature was probably influenced by that. I don’t normally have to ask myself “was that really me?”

        • sheila says:

          Right. Interesting.

          • sheila says:

            I definitely went and re-read all the books that had been assigned to me in high school that I either hated or found boring. It was amazing to me how much the books had changed. Ha!

            Tess of the DUrbervilles was such a BORE when I was 15. That book is a gripping tragic page-turner as an adult!

            And so on, and so on ….

          • mutecypher says:

            I like Mark Twain’s comment about his father: he got much wiser between the time Twain was 15 and the time he was 25. Same for good books.

          • John Dickerson says:

            I reread Tess in my 60’s and could not finish because it just sounded like child abuse. I feel the same about Oliver Twist.

  2. You know, Sheila, I did this very thing a few months back as a guest poster on The Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine. I revisited an Oz book I adored as a 5th grader and wrote a letter to my 10-year-old self about it. Possibly amusing at Oh, and I can never again sing with a light heart about ‘8 maids a milking’ after reading Tess. A gem.

  3. ted says:

    Franny and Zooey – I lived in that book. God, I loved it. Now I’m afraid to touch it. I’m sure it will come off juvenile, but it is a fantastic monologue. What a talent he had for capturing a certain kind of voice. Hesse, however, has held up well for me, what I’ve reread of him, which has not included Narcissus and Goldmund. Some stuff has improved with age: Dickens, George Eliot, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. And Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lightouse, and The Waves have become more impressive. I don’t think I even knew what she was capturing the first time round.

    • sheila says:

      Ted – A couple months ago I re-read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and I am happy to say it totally held up. But Franny and Zooey may be a horse of a different color – I haven’t re-read it since that time in Chicago. It’s such an important book to me. And that so much of it is about ACTING and THEATRE …. I just treasure it.

      If I had been forced to read George Eliot in high school (which I wasn’t) I know I wouldn’t have “gotten” it. Moby Dick was the biggest bore I had ever read. Then, of course, I re-read it and now count it as a favorite. That’s my favorite “rereading” story – that was the biggest transformation in perception.

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