In mid-February, forty people were waiting their turn to check out a 60-year-old novel from the Ann Arbor District Library. Of course it’s not just any novel–it’s the high school classic Catcher in the Rye.
The recent death of reclusive author J.D. Salinger has caused a resurgence of interest in the man and his best-known book. “It’s been flying off the shelf,” says a Borders clerk, estimating that that since the author’s death on January 28, the Liberty Street store has been selling between 30 and 40 copies a week, compared to 1 to 5 copies previously. Adds the clerk, ” I read it when I was a senior. Loved it!”
An author’s popularity often surges after death. Following the suicide of novelist David Foster Wallace, “People were asking about [his book Infinite Jest] for weeks, ” says a staffer at Dawn Treader. But Salinger’s death hit especially hard because so many young readers empathized with its angst-ridden teen hero, Holden Caulfield. who wonders around late 1940s Manhattan fulminating at “phonies.”
“Compared to a lot of classics we teach, that’s one book [teenagers] connect to,” says Huron High English teacher Bob Fox. Judith DeWoskin of Community High says her students still find Holden as endearing as ever: “In a class of thirty students, I’ll get twenty-six who respond to his voice and four who say he’s a whiner and should shut up.” Increasingly sophisticated about mental health, today’s young readers debte whether Holden was bi-polar (DeWoskin has brought in shrinks to contribute to that discussion).
In this post-Salinger era, anyone treasuring a first edition of Catcher could unload it for up to $15,000, says Jay Platt of West Side Book Shop. Wistfully, he recalls that he sold one about twenty years ago–when the price was just $75.