I’m reading about seven or eight things at the moment, some I need to read and others I simply desire. Books are good friends in the way that they are there when you need them, whether it is to read them in their entirety or simply to open them and find a passage that moves you—a long conversation or a quick check-in. Nothing else can move you like a piece of art.
One of the books I’m reading at the moment is The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel that brought him much unwanted fame. A recluse, he died at 91 in Cornish, N.H. He had lived there in seclusion for 50 years. Perhaps his elusiveness is precisely why we are so curious about him. He’s someone who we all want to know, thanks to his terrific book.
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.
That doesn’t happen much, at all. Perhaps it’s because many of the books that I read were written by writers that are long-dead.
Oscar Wilde, for instance, is one of my favorites. His wit and eloquence are simply unmatched. From his 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
Many authors are inclined to give advice on what to read and how to read it. Gustave Flaubert, for instance, advises:
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
In the case of any author, perhaps, it is better to know them in the way that we know them already, through their work, which is to say, that we don’t know them at all. Just a little piece of their hearts and minds that they chose to show us.
—Rachael Benavidez, Associate Editor
Photos: J. D. Salinger in 1952, from the Hulton Archive/Antony Di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society/Getty Images; J. D. Salinger in 1950 by Lotte Jacobi; Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony.
The Salinger quotation is from “Catcher in the Rye,” right? Holden Caulfield wishes he could get wise advice from the wise author of the wise book he read. Ironically, that is exactly how many readers of Salinger’s work felt, which is why Salinger, who was not naturally reclusive, fled to Vermont. I’ve been lucky in my life to have known men and women who wrote good books, and I could call them on the phone whenever I felt like it, and I could tell them how much I liked their books; but I didn’t ask them to solve my problems or share their wisdom, because they already put their wisdom into the books they wrote. They wanted to have a nice dinner, drink wine, talk about their families, what someone said that was funny or stupid, what a sorry mess the world was in. Still, I understand why readers would like to know their favorite authors personally. Reading is such an intimate experience that we feel we already do know the author, because we have lived with the authorial voice inside us. But being friends with writers comes with a few caveats: (1) they already have lots of friends and don’t need new ones; (2) they are married to the muse and don’t want you calling them when you feel like it because they are probably writing and don’t want to be disturbed; (3) they are human and needy and mostly need praise, pure and unadulterated; (4) if you are young and attractive, the wise writer may consider you not so much a friend as a tasty snack. In the end, I think one is better off with the book than with the author; the book, as Rachael says in her post, is your friend.