I’m reluctant to write these words, but here they are: The book that has most influenced my life is J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Salinger was a consummately serious writer whose powers declined sooner than they should have—and well before he stopped publishing. The greatness of his work isn’t located where he tried to install it or where his most worshipful readers find it—in the big vague ideas about spiritual mysticism or in the brainy ponderings of members of the Glass family. It turns up in human-to-human interactions, like this one in “For Esmé with Love and Squalor”:
[Esmé] nodded. “Make it extremely squalid and moving,” she suggested. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”
I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I’d do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.
When I first read this story, I was 19 and wouldn’t have been able to explain why I found it so moving. Now that I’m 72, I can explain it at length, but I’ll settle for saying that a reader feels the emotional pressure of both characters’ loneliness and witnesses how their disparate lives inform the words they speak and write to each other. With humor muted just enough to honor the story’s seriousness, “Esmé” offers one of the most decorous love scenes ever written.
Why is Nine Stories my touchstone when my bookshelves hold at least a hundred great novels? For the same reason that while I may study and admire the work of Delacroix, I’ll lose myself in a Vermeer painting. The greatness of this little book (198 pages) lies in moments that are restrained, emotionally illuminating, personal, and often funny as hell. It lies in places where you neither look for it nor notice it.
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