A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:
“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”
Of the 20 books on my top 10 list, none of them comes from my high school years. This is hardly surprising; adolescence is a time apart from the normal flow of life — actually years of pupation between childhood and adulthood, spent in a chrysalis of self-regard, dread and hero worship.
That doesn’t mean books weren’t important. Indeed, they may have been most important in those years, but it does mean that the books that were important then have faded. Indeed, have become more likely a source of personal embarrassment as we remember them.
For me, those years were filled with almost obsessive reading. I ate up books like potato chips, at times during summer vacations at the rate of a book-a-day. And I devoured more contemporary fiction than I have at any other period in my life. I read everything Saul Bellow had written up to that time. I read John Updike, Malcolm Purdy, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon, Jules Feiffer, James Drought, Herbert Roth, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and a host of others I cannot recall at the moment.
The fact I don’t recall them is germane. I hardly remember what was in any of these books because, clearly, I was reading way over my head. What could a goyishe 14-year-old suburban boy, pimply-faced and horny, ever understand about urban Jewish angst or African-American anger? Simply beyond my realm of experience. More to my concern: whether my shoes were pointy enough, my hair wavy enough and if my trousers had cuffs or not. I forget now whether it was cool to have cuffs or supremely uncool. I tried to instruct my parents in these finely parsed issues, but they were too block-headed to understand.
And speaking of not understanding: My young libido, raging but unfocused, led me to Terry Southern’s Candy and Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. It was my primary source of sex education, and it is a wonder to this day that I survived.
But I’m dancing around the central issue. The bible of pubescence was and remains J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Here was a book that addressed my concerns directly, that understood my life from the inside, that expressed those unsayable thoughts. I gobbled it up, and all the Glass family sagas and short stories. I wanted more; there were no more.
There were other books that teens revered, and I read those, too: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies — which, because I was a teenager and therefore an idiot, so it never bothered me that Golding told of a world-view diametrically opposed to Salinger’s fable of self-righteous innocence.
Holden Caulfield recognized the essential hypocrisy of adulthood and pointed fingers everywhere but reflexively. The purity of his heart guarded the cleanliness of his soul. I signed on. It was society that was rotten.
Of course, looking back, one realizes Holden Caulfield was the biggest phony of them all. But it is the nature of hucksters and demogogues that they project their limitations outward. It is what makes them so convincing, at least to the unformed souls they lead around by the nose.
I have tried to reread Salinger a few times as a grown-up, but the treacle leaves an unpleasant coating on the inside of my mouth.
My self-image at the time was that I was a budding bohemian, that I was an intellectual among cattle. I had subscriptions to Evergreen magazine and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots. I listened most nights in my bed to Jean Shepherd on the radio, and never really understood that the “hipsters” he railed against were the very people I idealized. Irony, at that age, is invisible. We look right through it without seeing it. I went to Greenwich Village every opportunity I got and frequented the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner.
Lordy, I was a pretentious twit.
There were books I was required to read for school, but while these books are worthy, they are wasted on adolescents who cannot grasp their import. I read The Great Gatsby for school, and never quite understood that Gatsby was a gangster. Over my head. The Scarlet Letter was assigned, and I don’t think I even understood that Pearl was Hester’s daughter. I’m not sure why a punk kid was ever asked to read such a rich and subtle book. There was clearly no way I could wrap my tiny, unformed brain around the complexity of that book — to say nothing of the boredom induced by paragraphs that long without being broken up into constant bites of dialog.
There was a tendency during those years, when introduced to a book I enjoyed, to attempt to read everything else by that author. Gobble it all up, nine-yards and a tail. That is the way it was with the Glass family, and that is how it was with Jack Kerouac.
There was scarcely a Kerouac book in print in the mid-1960s, that I didn’t inhale, starting with On the Road, which I read twice. I fantasized riding the rails, driving a broad-hipped Hudson at a hundred miles an hour through the nights of Nebraska, listening to Ornette Coleman and dispensing off-the-cuff witticisms to the Juliette Greco on my lap. When I had a chance to travel to Europe between my junior and senior years, I took Lonesome Traveler with me, and in the bookstalls along the Seine in Paris, found Big Sur and Subterraneans in British paperback editions.
I am amazed when I look back, at how much I read — all of which was outside schoolwork, which I neglected. And I am amazed now at how little of anything I read then I retained. It went through me like a sieve. All that verbiage accumulated around me like gravel around a caddis fly larva, and when I left for college, I shed that cocoon and started fresh with a new set of enthusiasms.
Next: Reading outside the curriculum