Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno

There is no denying the staying power of J. D. Salinger. All you have to do is teach Catcher in the Rye to a group of high schoolers—or better yet, assign Franny and Zooey to a bunch of unsuspecting college students—shake and stir, and voila! Immediate knee-jerk admiration and wonder is almost guaranteed. For a large percentage of students, Salinger can still pack a tremendous punch, and he still connects with the spiritual seeker inclinations that are  common among university students.

It’s tough to put a finger on the precise nature of Salinger’s cultlike following. While teaching Franny and Zooey last semester just after the release of the new book Salinger and the companion documentary film, I was deeply struck—again—by the infatuations that Salinger’s often elegant and funny prose and his spiritual musings are able to inspire in readers at a certain stage in life. Near the end of Franny and Zooey is a moment when the young TV talent Zooey inspects the haunted room of his much older, dead-by-suicide brother, Seymour. The inside face of the door is covered with hand-scribbled quotes from muses, philosophers, and mystics from throughout the world’s literary and religions traditions: Pascal, Baudelaire, Kobayashi Issa, Marcus Aurelius, Sri Ramakrishna, Kafka, Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, and others.

The door represents the scores of spiritual options available to young seekers of truth; it also represents a doorway into the future—and into the past, being the entrance to the untouched room of the brilliant but suicidal Seymour. It was Seymour who expressed to his younger siblings the true power of the “Jesus prayer”: not an unending mumbling of a prayer under our breath, but a way of life, a spiritual practice in which we all see ourselves somehow achieving the glory of work by investing ourselves in whatever it is we can do best. Without actually naming this activity a vocation or calling, that’s what Salinger seems to be getting at in Franny and Zooey, and it remains a powerful point for young people. But Franny and Zooey is also a story with a certain mazelike quality that resists any certainty or easy answers.