“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.” – J D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Whether it’s to gauge my own maturity or to relive a moment from the past, there are a few books I’ve reread over the years. Rereading a book is a way to help me check in with my old self, and to see how good the writers I love still are. In any case, I find that this exercise in reading can be quite edifying. Lately, I have been thinking of two very different books to which I’ve returned over the years: J D Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection of poems, “Duino Elegies.”
I read “The Catcher in the Rye” while I was in high school, circa age 17. It was one of those books that addressed me as a young man who couldn’t wait to grow up; who wanted to leave his teen years behind. I looked upon the narrator, Holden Caulfield, as a guide to becoming the “right kind” of adult—to avoid becoming a “phony,” in his famous words.
My rereading of “Catcher” was a disappointment, however. I was already past 35 when I went back to Holden and his milieu. Maybe I was disenchanted because, in the meantime, I had discovered the work of Saul Bellow, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce? Salinger had occupied a prominent place in the canon of literature-I-had-read, but maybe he was being supplanted by the more challenging work in literature and poetry I had taken on? The truth is, I had outgrown whatever meaning or “message” the book had because I was no longer the audience for Holden’s coming-of-age tale.
Now of all the books of poetry that resonate with me, I keep returning to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” for inspiration. This was the first book of poetry with which I spent some close-reading time. I still have my marked up copy, full of my young adult observations as marginalia. I’m sharing this pithy note, which, despite its youthful exuberance, contains an idea that yet matters to me:
“If we write a poem as if it were to be spoken, what happens? Does it lead us, as readers, to ‘meaning’; does it make meaning (if there is any logical/narrative meaning to poetry) clearer?”
I learned how to read (and appreciate) surprising turns-of-phrase and Big Ideas in modern poetry from Rilke. I suppose he was my Holden Caulfield in the world of Contemporary Poetry.
What’s next? I am eyeing Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel” and, in anticipation of her “new” book, “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” By the way, if I pick up “Mockingbird,” it will be my third visit to Maycomb, Alabama. What have you been rereading lately?