With Love and Squalor

J.D. Salinger died at the age of 91. There is already much speculation about the unpublished manuscripts that may be found at the reclusive author’s house in New Hampshire. This was the man, after all, who said in a 1974 interview: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” So who knows what he wrote and hid from the world. As for the work he did publish, much has been said about the iconic The Catcher in the Rye (a book that resonated with the thirteen-year-old me the way it continues to do with so many teenagers).

But I am especially indebted to Nine Stories. I read the book when I was fourteen and fell in love with short fiction. It made me want to write short stories. I’ve reread those stories countless times since and they still excite me as a reader. Oh, to write dialogue like Salinger did!

Charles McGrath summed up the stories’ appeal in The Times yesterday: “The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it) and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony.”

As of this morning, Nine Stories was at #43 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Not bad for a book of short stories published in 1953.

I could go on, about how well Salinger’s books are selling since he died (just look at Amazon), about Salinger’s influence on the likes of Wes Anderson, or about how annoyed Mr. Salinger would probably be if he could see all the tweets and Facebook status updates devoted to him. But instead, I’ll just close with the famous last line of “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor”, a story that inspired many people to name their daughters Esmé (and inspired Lemony Snicket’s character, Esmé Squalor):

“You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac–with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

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