Saving ‘Catcher,’ ‘People’s History’ of Salinger, Zinn

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Friday, February 12, 2010
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The world lost two of its most important literary giants last month.

J.D. Salinger, the infamous recluse who penned “The Catcher in the Rye,” and Howard Zinn, an influential historian and author of such texts as “A People’s History of the United States,” both died of natural causes Jan. 27.

Both were in their old age (Salinger, 91, and Zinn, 87) but their deaths sting nonetheless. They will be honored for their writings but, more than that, their passing signifies a changing landscape of the literary world.

In terms of content, Salinger and Zinn couldn’t be further apart. Salinger’s generational masterpiece is a cathartic novel about youthful rebellion and alienation from the world and made Holden Caulfield synonymous with teenage angst and confusion. Zinn’s historical text became an authoritative beacon of truth and justice of the history and democracy in the United States and truly gave voice to the voiceless.

It’s important to remember Salinger and Zinn because it’s unlikely the world will ever see anyone like them again. It’s even more unlikely we’ll ever witness books becoming as powerful or ubiquitous as their works have been.

“The Catcher in the Rye” was written in 1951. It still holds relevance today and, in many ways, represents what it truly means to be a timeless classic. “A People’s History” was first published in 1980 and still sits atop bookshelves as a seminal masterpiece.

But despite their successes in life, their deaths may cause us to forget the contributions they submitted to this world with their words. Contributions unlike anything we may ever see again.

We don’t have a Holden Caulfield to call our own. Instead we have Harry Potter, a magical wizard who fights the forces of evil with a wand and the help of his ever-supportive friends. More recently, we have the “Twilight” series, which has something to do with pretty teenagers and seductive vampires.

Are these escapes from reality going to be remembered as the classics of our generation?

Where once we valued sobering realism and truth, we now find ourselves craving the next escapist fantasy. We dedicate hours of our digitally infused days escaping the world while forgetting that a significant swath of Americans can’t even afford or access the Internet.

Who will tell their forgotten story? Does our generation have another Howard Zinn, and will anyone care to read what he writes?

In an age of connectivity, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been.

The market for content is irreversibly changing. It’s doubtful there will ever be a novel as unifying and culture-defining as “The Catcher in the Rye” again. (At least, not one that doesn’t rely on sensationalized prose and fantasy to lure readers.) Likewise, it’s hard to envision another work like Zinn’s telling the story of history from the perspective of those who experienced it. Experience, any longer, is found online.

With so much instantly accessible text out there, a time when everyone reads the same words of the same book — and connected to one another through that common experience — may be gone forever. Salinger and Zinn remind us of a time when books did more than entertain or inform.

Dustin reads to connect with people. Connect with him at dustin.volz@asu.edu