Have I mentioned my friend Jim Fox lately? Surely I have. Jim Fox is, among many other things, my reading soul-mate. If Jim likes a book, I like it. If Jim doesn’t like a book, I don’t like it. I’m not sure he loves everything I love but I know I love everything he loves. So when Jim told me that his most profound reading experience of 2016 had been rereading Franny and Zooey (first published in 1961), I was on it.
I bought a copy and read it on the plane going out to Los Angeles. A flight from Nashville to Los Angeles is exactly how long it takes to read Franny and Zooey. It was so what I needed — as a person, as a writer — that it felt as if it had come to me by Divine Providence, which is just another way of saying Jim Fox. Franny and Zooey is a book that is serious about the soul. My friend Ken Brecher, who wrote the wonderful book Too Sad to Sing, picked me up at the Los Angeles airport and I gave him my copy. Two days later he called to tell me Franny and Zooey had changed his life. He couldn’t believe I’d given it to him at the very moment he needed it.
The first time I read Franny and Zooey, I was 13, and if it hadn’t been for this latest recommendation I probably never would have read it again. Now that I own half a bookstore I rarely re-read books because there are just so many new books to read. I remembered everything in the Franny section, especially the Jesus Prayer, but I only remembered the Zooey section through the scene of Zooey and his mother talking in the bathroom. I didn’t remember the end of the novel, which could mean that I didn’t finish it (unlikely, considering how short it is) or could mean that I finished it 40 years ago. Not everything sticks.
Here’s my Salinger story: I read Catcher in the Rye in one night at my cousin’s house when I was 13. I could not put it down, and when I finished it I started over at the beginning and read until I fell asleep. After that I read Franny and Zooey, which I remember thinking was a much more sophisticated book. I didn’t read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction (two very short books in one short volume) although I lied to my 13-year-old friends and said I had in an attempt to seem cool. (That sentence tells you everything you need to know about how cool I was in junior high.) I did read Nine Stories and became completely fixated on them. Nine Stories is probably the book I’ve read most often in my life and taught whenever I had to teach a class. When I was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 1990 with Elizabeth McCracken (where I wrote Patron Saint of Liars and she wrote Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry?) we were once thrown out of a bar for discussing which of the nine stories was our favorite. We were talking quietly but the person playing piano at the bar took offense and told us to leave (he spoke the words “Ladies, you need to leave now” into the microphone). It’s a sacred moment in the history of our friendship, and in our love for Salinger.
But back to this year. After I gave my copy to Ken, I bought another Franny and Zooey and read it again. I, who don’t re-read, re-read this twice. After that I finally got around to reading Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters which is as good as any Salinger a person could want, and Seymour: An Introduction which is a bit of a Glass family screed but fun if you’re into it. Suddenly I could connect all the dots of the Glass family as they appeared in Nine Stories, in Franny and Zooey, in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I had to wonder why I’d never taken the time to put it all together when I was such a Salinger fan. The problem was that I was giving my 13-year-old self too much credit. I thought I’d already done much of the reading.
The next thing you know I’m in Parnassus raving about Salinger to Kathy Schultenover, our excellent leader of book club discussions, and she said she might be interested in doing Franny and Zooey for the classics book club, at which point we decided I should write this post. I knew that meant going back to Catcher in the Rye, and that sounded like drudgery. I think of Catcher in the Rye as a young adult novel. Many people claim it should not be re-read, that it doesn’t hold up, and I wasn’t anxious to disturb my happy memory. I put it off until I had a cold, then I read it all the way through in a day, just like I had the first time. I loved it, especially now that I knew it had been written by the fictional character Buddy Glass (brother of Franny and Zooey and Seymour), who considered it to be somewhat autobiographical. Did you follow that? Not autobiographical where Salinger is concerned, but autobiographical where Salinger’s fictional character is concerned. The book perfectly captures the awful cusp between childhood and adulthood. Holden Caulfield would have known I had lied about reading Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in junior high. He would have called me out for being a phony and a snob. Upon re-reading, I thought the book was pretty much perfect. I also, again, was surprised by how much of it was completely new to me. I remembered everything about Phoebe, about the broken record and her blue pajamas with red elephants, but I didn’t remember a thing about Holden’s brother who had died. I didn’t remember why Holden went off the rails, only that he did.
Readers change. Books don’t change. I still think I probably love Nine Stories the best, but maybe not — maybe it’s Franny and Zooey now. This is the great thing about owning a bookstore: whatever you haven’t read is a new book, and while it’s great to promote things that are new, I never miss the chance to sell a copy of The All of It by Jeanette Haien, or Act One by Moss Hart, neither of which are “new” but might be new to you. You’ve read those, right?
Sometimes it’s good to go back and read the books we love again. We’re growing up all the time and things change.
Come and see us at Parnassus.
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Click any of the book titles in this note to toss a copy into your shopping cart and read along with Ann. And if you live in Nashville, please join Kathy and our Classics Book Club for a Franny and Zooey discussion on November 27, 2017, at 10 a.m. or 6:30 p.m.!
Speaking of coming to see us: Look who’s coming to Nashville! Do you have your tickets to these upcoming Salon@615 events? Find these and more on the Parnassus Books calendar:
Oct. 26 – Billy Collins (The Rain in Portugal)