There’s been much written about coronavirus-related dreams and depression, but less about coronavirus reading regression, as I recently experienced.
First, I learned at the end of last year that Mr. Bradley, my high school English teacher, had passed away. Then the virus hit, and a national news story appeared to make the case that J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” was a pandemic “comfort read,” mainly because its nostalgic depiction of New York City in the 1950s is so at odds with the city’s current state.
Comfort read? Hmm. Not what I remember. My regression thus activated, I went back and read Salinger’s book, something I’d been meaning to do for 50 years. When I say 50 years, I mean off and on decennially. Every 10 years, like the census. (I’ve also been reading the dictionary in my isolation.)
What would jog my memory of an event so far in the past that it wouldn’t seem to matter? Perhaps when reliving the ”good old days” of high school; or after seeing a documentary about the eccentric, self-isolating Salinger; or by reading about a literary trove that the author had kept under wraps until his death in 2011, only recently put on display at the New York Public Library.
I remember really liking the book, as much as any high school junior could be expected to enjoy an assigned book and the homework that went with it. Like most of my teenage cohorts, I was ready to rally behind the book’s quirky narrator Holden Caulfield, the rebellious, hilarious and irreverent — especially to someone in a Jesuit boys school — protagonist.
“What I like is a book that’s funny at least once in a while.” — Holden Caulfield, from “Catcher in the Rye”
Holden was the perfect standard bearer for the benighted, and his story, an irresistible anthem for the disaffected. Even now, I’m guessing countless stay-at-home high schoolers across the country are still being tasked to read this discomforting coming-of-age story at a time when anxiety is epidemic.
With every decennial reminder came a nagging memory of how my takeaway from the book was different from my teacher’s interpretation. Why should this have lodged in my mind for fifty years? Beats me. Maybe it was something Mr. Bradley said, or more likely, a short comment (always in red) that he scribbled in the margin of an assignment. Not that it matters.
I remember Holden as an antihero with a gift for sizing up “phonies, perverts and scumbags” to devastating effect. In spite of his many flaws, here was a character with brave, redemptive qualities for which the author shared great empathy and affection. I seem to recall Mr. Bradley seeing the book in a more cautionary light: Watch out! Holden is having a nervous breakdown, and is little changed by the end of the book. He needs to grow up. True enough, but I found those teacherly words of advice not entirely persuasive.
“It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true.” — H.C.
Second time around, I found the book like meeting up with an old friend, outwardly excited by the feeling that nothing had changed between us, while inside tacitly acknowledging the effects of time. Some of the novel’s incandescence had faded. Holden’s morbid depression and adolescent angst seemed more obvious than I remember. Still, I found the book complex, ambiguous and layered, as is all great writing– and life itself. And I still hold stubbornly to my view, as loyal and protective of Holden as I imagined his reclusive creator to be. Not that it matters.
“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.” — H.C.
Reading in this time of self-imposed solitude takes on added depth. Books speak directly to you in a way they don’t in noisier times. I felt a sense of gratitude after finishing the novel. Had sly “Old Bradley” actually been prodding me to think for myself, and had he been trying to cool my fervid thinking enough to consider an opposing point of view? Then it hit me. Did his disapproving view of Holden reflect his own belief, or was he playing the devil’s advocate to shake me out of my smug ideas about the book—a trick of the trade that I should have remembered from my teaching days?
‘You can’t stop a teacher when they want to do something. They just do it.” — H.C.
I went on to major in English at college and taught school for a few years after graduation. (Full disclosure: Sadly, I never had the chance to teach “The Catcher in the Rye.”) I spoke with Mr. Bradley just twice in my adult years. Once, at a cross-country race in New York City and the second time in an airport waiting room. No mention of the book, not that it matters.
When my father died, Mr. Bradley was at his funeral. He slipped me a couple of photocopied sheets of poetry as he offered his condolences. When my mother passed, there he was again. Recently, when a friend’s mother passed, I clipped one of the selections and included it with my sympathy card.
Speaking with my wife about an inspirational message to share with her sister during this trying time, I immediately thought of Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things.” Another nod to my teacher.
But enough of this personal “David Copperfield kind of crap,” as Holden might say.
If you go back far enough through memory’s field of rye, you can come to a place of quiet comfort. They say you can never tell how far a teacher’s influence carries.
I think that’s true. I really do.
Jerry DeFelice is a writer living in Lakewood.