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I'm Comfortable Being a Cliché (J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn R.I.P.)

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Friday, Jan 29, 2010

I’m comfortable being a cliché. It suits me. I realize I’m one of a zillion dumb hipster-types living in Brooklyn, blogging about ultimately meaningless nonsense, and I’m okay with that. I like record shops and coffee shops and book shops. I like irony and sarcasm and even more irony and sarcasm. I eat hummus (occasionally). I think Joe Strummer died for our sins.


Given my personal pedigree, it should come as no surprise that two of my all-time favorite books are Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I’m no more bothered what their popularity says about me than I am about what the books themselves say about me, or what you or anyone else says about me for that matter. I’m gonna like what I’m gonna like, whether it’s good, bad or ugly. Or overrated, overwrought or overcooked. And that goes for books, though I wouldn’t consider either Salinger or Zinn’s accepted masterpieces as any of those descriptives. I’m not going to get into all that.
  
What impact Zinn’s work might have had on the way we as a people look at our history is a matter best left for people who give a shit about that sort of thing. Likewise, whether Salinger’s debut was an inspiration to outcasts both fucked up and not doesn’t mean anything to me. Because while I may well be one of a zillion, I was touched deeply enough in my life by the works of both writers that I can only tell you what their works have meant to me. And I’m not even really sure I’d be able to explain it anyway, not here in a blog or over drink after drink hunched over the bar at some Williamsburg watering hole.


Even if I could somehow figure out the big picture, personally or universally, I’m not sure I’d want to. That’s been discussed to death, and is undoubtedly being done so now in irritating conversations on college campuses, or in record shops, coffee shops and book shops. The conversation is nothing new, of course. In the case of Salinger, a largely successful recluse for much of the 59 years since Catcher in the Rye was published, speculation about what the book meant and why its author kept so quiet in its monstrous wake has had its meat stripped from the bone and the marrow sucked dry by everyone from intellectuals to pimply-faced teenagers for nearly as long. Despite countless undoubtedly lucrative offers, Salinger always refused to allow his book to be sucked into the Hollywood machine. I only hope his heirs are able to stay so strong.


Zinn, while far less a recluse and far more willing to talk to anyone who’d listen, has also seen his work dissected up and down the intellectual and political spectrum, thanks, bizarrely, to a prominent mention in the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck tour de something-or-other, Good Will Hunting.


I’m comfortable being a cliché. I’m okay with the fact that I first had my mind blown by the story of Holden Caulfield as a teenager, and that I’ve re-read the book every couple of years like a dutiful white New York liberal half-Jew. Likewise, I’m cool with Zinn’s book having hit me like a ton of bricks in my mid-20s, when it was finally re-published.


Word of the deaths of both Salinger and Zinn broke yesterday. I considered, briefly, what both authors have meant to me, and I took the books off my shelf not only to photograph them, but also flip through their pages and read passages at random. Whether I thought I’d be connecting with a younger version of myself is possible. I often wish for selective senility when it comes to music, so I could feel what it was like to be stopped dead in my tracks by something beautiful revealing itself to me. I guess that’s kind of what I went through with Salinger and Zinn the first time around, and it’s why I’m choosing to celebrate rather than mourn their passing.


Neither man died young, and it’s not as though the world, in the case of Salinger, has been robbed of a prolific author whose best works will never see the light of day. The work of Salinger and Zinn has meant a great deal to a great many people, people I love and respect and am beyond happy to have in my life, and people I’ve yet to meet as well. If it makes me a cliché to be a part of that vast group of beautiful people, I’m comfortable with that.

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I’m not certain if it says more about J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull or me, that when I think of the ultimate coming-of-age treatise from the trenches, it’s not a novel but a trio of albums.
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A tribute to the signature interwar polymath: the historian, activist, dramatist, dockyard worker and teacher Howard Zinn.
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