Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy 90th Birthday, JD

The list of books that have changed my life is a long one indeed. When I read The Color Purple for the first time, I was wowed by its style and by how it made me, a late-20th century white guy living in the midwest, feel like I was the kindred spirit of Celie, a black lesbian living in the deep south in the early 20th century. It made me realize that literature bridges gaps like this. Hearing Alice Walker speak cemented the feeling; she made me feel empowered in ways that I can't quite explain even now, 12 years later.

With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can track my maturity as a teacher with how well I can teach this book. I have learned this book by teaching it, by noticing new things every time. I'm known as the mockingbird expert at school, and have obsessed over it at great lengths. And I love teaching it, and the kids really end up liking it.

Both Life of Pi and Bee Season were from the same era, about five years ago. Both made me question my existence and my beliefs, and both still resound today.

Other books I associate with places: I cried at A Lesson Before Dying as I was moving to Baltimore, its tapes playing in my parents' van. A Farewell to Arms packed a whallop when I was in Italy. I remember the ending being spoiled for me but not minding because it was that good. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the longest, funniest, and oddest books I've ever read, and I associate it with South Carolina, and a tumultuous week on the beach.

Song of Solomon, The Elephant Vanishes, and Fun Home are books that I associate with turning 30. There was a time in my life when I felt exactly like Milkman Dead. I still do, in fact. When will my journey to find my(gold/self) happen? When will I leap?

But it's J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye that probably most made me realize the ever-changing quality of literature. I first read it in the 12th grade, and didn't like it - Holden was whiny, the book didn't go anywhere. I read it a second time six years later, while student teaching in Lansing. This time, I realized Holden's cynicism was as mask, and that the book was actually hopeful, and very, very sad. I was amazed that the meaning of literature could change for me so much just by what point in my life I was at. For a couple of years after that, I read it every year, charting my own maturity and progress through this life by how I reacted. I found new wrinkles in it - what's up with that teacher? what exactly happens at the end? I named my dog Holden.

J.D. Salinger turned 90 yesterday. Happy Birthday, JD. Here's hoping that when you go, you'll be leaving boxes and boxes of unpublished books for us all.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog regularly. Although I was never the school expert on Mockingbird, it was acknowledged that no one loved teaching it any more than I did. You are so right in saying you learned something new each time you teach it. I can still pick it up and feel I'm getting something out of it although I think there are few passages that I haven't memorized. To me it is the perfect novel and the joy of sharing it with 9th graders is the one thing I miss now that I'm retired. Your students are lucky and I wish you well in 2009.

Jackie said...

I also really disliked Catcher the first few times I read it-- it only really clicked for me once I started teaching the book.

For me, Gatsby would have to be on this list, as one of those books where my reaction changed so much that it reveals as much about me as the book.

meegan said...

I haven't read Catcher since I was 12 and I didn't like it, I suppose because I didn't like Holden. I think I was spoiled by Franny and Zooey, both of whom I liked immensely and wanted to be. I think I'll give CITR another try this year -- I don't do enough rereading.

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