Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The death of Jerome David Salinger brings to an end one of the great lives in American letters. For me, and for generations after me, “The Catcher in the Rye” is much more than an “evergreen” best-seller; it is truly a rite of passage, as much for my own children as it was for me. I studied the text of “Franny and Zooey” and “Nine Stories” with the devotion of a Talmudic scholar, and I recall how the publication of a new short story by J. D. Salinger in the pages of The New Yorker in 1965 was a rare and much-anticipated event.
J. D. Salinger is all the more remarkable because he so resolutely rejected the celebrity that was his for the asking. He was a famous recluse, and he became all the more famous because of his self-imposed isolation and his decision to simply stop writing. Salinger even went to court to prevent the use of quotations from his work in an unauthorized biography, and he scuttled the plans to issue his last published short story in book form.
His life was always veiled in ironies and mysteries. His father was Jewish but his mother was not – she changed her name from Marie to Miriam, and he did not learn of her Christian origins until the occasion of his bar mitzvah. So it turns out that one of the most admired Jewish-American writers of the 20th century is not Jewish at all according to Halakha, and Salinger himself reportedly embraced the beliefs of Christian Science. Of course, it is exactly such ambiguities and conflicts that make him an archetypal American Jew no matter what he actually believed and practiced.
What remains after his passing at the age of 91 is what we have possessed all along — a small but superb body of work that has never gone out of style or out of print. Indeed, “The Catcher in the Rye” is so thoroughly and uniquely American in its voice and its concerns that it deserves to be called one of the great American novels. Indeed, the case can be made — and has been made — that the social and cultural turmoil that we call the Counterculture may have begun with Holden Caulfield and his contempt for all that is “phony.”
Salinger himself spent his life making war on phoniness, and it is a war that he won.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.
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January 22, 2010 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The story is told of a delegation of Communist Party cadres who are ushered into the Kremlin for a ceremonial meeting with Stalin. After they are gone, Stalin discovers that his favorite pipe is missing, and he sends Beria, the much-feared chief of the Soviet secret police, to retrieve it.
“Never mind,” Stalin tells Beria on his return. “I found the pipe under a pile of papers on my desk.”
“Too late,” reports Beria. “Half of them confessed to taking the pipe and were shot as wreckers, and the other half died under questioning.”
The story captures both the terror that afflicted the citizens of the Soviet Union who lived (and died) during the Stalin era and the spirit of resistance that has always manifested itself in joke-telling. But the humor is very black when it comes to Stalin, who succeeded in destroying Jewish and Yiddish culture in Russia. At the time of his death in 1953, Stalin was preparing a new wave of terror against the Jews in connection with the so-called “Doctor’s Plot.”
All of these ironies came to mind when I heard that Emil Draitser, author of “Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin” (University of California Press: $24.95), will be taking the stage in the ALOUD series at the Central Library at 7:00 p.m. on February 3, 2010.
Born in Odessa in 1937, Draitser was a political satirist in the Soviet Union before he was blacklisted for a piece that daringly criticized a high-ranking figure. He managed to reach L.A. in 1974, earned a Ph.D. in Russian literature at UCLA, and is today a professor of Russian at the City University of New York.
Since coming to America, Draitser has published novels, non-fiction, newspaper journalism and scholarly articles, including “Forbidden Laughter: Soviet Underground Humor” and the bittersweet memoir that gives its title to his event at ALOUD. “Shush!” was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “a painful and acutely observed memoir,” but Draitser always brings to his work the same wry sense of humor that cost him his career in the Soviet Union.
Draitser will be featured at ALOUD in conversation with Suzi Weissmann, a professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Free reservations and additional information about Emil Draitser’s event at the Central Library, located at Fifth and Flower Streets in downtown L.A., are available by calling (213) 228-7025 or at www.aloudla.org.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 6, 2010 | 9:52 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
According to an item that raced across the Internet after the holidays, we have reached a tipping point in the digital revolution — Amazon sold more e-books than “real” books on Christmas day.
Well, not so fast. Electronic books still represent less than one percent of all books sold, and what happened on Christmas day needs to be put into perspective. Amazon sold out its stock of Kindle e-book readers in early December, and lots of people who received one as a holiday gift tried out their new toy by ordering and downloading some e-books. By contrast, the people who still prefer “real” books were able to refrain from e-commerce on that day and spend time with one of the conventional books that they received as gifts. Nothing more is needed to explain the spike in e-book sales on Christmas day.
Of course, it’s perfectly true that we are witnessing revolutionary changes in how books are written, published and sold. The steady decline of independent booksellers is old news, and even the chains are suffering; Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain in America, is closing another 180 stores by the end of January 2010. And it’s also true that e-book readers are the hot new thing in the publishing industry — Barnes & Noble has launched its own e-book reader, the Nook, which also sold out during the holidays, and early-adopters are eagerly awaiting the rumored launch of a new e-book reader by Apple.
Even more fundamental changes are on the horizon. If the Google class-action settlement is ever approved and implemented, it will be possible to access and search the entire contents of the great libraries of the world, and many millions of titles will be available for on-line ordering, whether in print, print-on-demand or digital editions. Indeed, it is Google’s ambition to put every book ever written into its vast online database, a grandiose notion that may yet become a reality.
Still, the fact remains that printed and bound books — or “dead-tree” books, as digital visionaries like to call them — are still alive and well. Although it may be a generational issue, many of us still prefer (or need) to read books in the form of print on paper rather than a digital display, if only because the workings of the human eye seem to favor the printed page.
My own prediction is that “real” books will outsell e-books for a long, long time. To be sure, many of us will buy those books on-line rather than in a beloved neighborhood bookstore, and many of those books will be “POD” (print on demand) books — that is, a book that is stored on a computer and printed out only when a copy is actually purchased.
But, now and for a long time to come, the end-product will not be greatly different from the print-on-paper book that began with Gutenberg and has defined human civilization for the last six centuries.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God,” will appear with Dr. Amir Hussain and Dr. Bob Harris in a program on “The Roots of Religious Terrorism” at Antelope Valley College (Room SSV 151) on at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12, 2010.