Survey Says. . . (No. 14)

15 Seconds of Fame. . .

As some of you know, or may have noticed, a letter I wrote to NPR’s “Morning Edition” was read on Friday. The letter was a response to a commentary by Jon Carroll, all about JFK Jr. and life and death and stuff like that. Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can hear both the Commentary and the Letter online at NPR’s website (provided you’ve got RealAudio, which you can download for free from a link NPR provides).

* Go here to hear Jon Carroll
* And then go here, and if you wait a couple minutes, you’ll hear Bob Edwards say my name, followed by a few choice words.

Survey Says. . .

As of 1 August 1999, there have been 26 respondents to the Very Short Survey (approximately 22% of the current readership, or at least subscribership). Of those who responded, 9 (34%) had fired a gun–the kind with gunpowder and bullets and stuff. BB guns, waterguns, and paintball guns just don’t count. A number of those who hadn’t said they’d like to; one or two said they had no desire to. The overwhelming majority (all but 2) had read The Catcher in the Rye. About 60% reported liking it on first reading; the average age of first reading was 16-17 (the youngest was 10, the oldest 40), and there was no apparent correlation (as I had thought there might be) between age and liking. You can read some of the responses if you’d like.

So, for those of you who’ve been wondering why I was curious about guns and The Catcher in the Rye, some explanation:

One reader wondered if there was some correlation between gun nuts and Catcher. I don’t think so, though I suppose Mark David Chapman might disagree. (For those of you who weren’t succumbed to the mind-numbing documentary about John Lennon’s assassin which I got to watch in high school as part of Salinger Seminar, Chapman spent a full weekend in New York City using Catcher as a guidebook, doing everything that Holden did, except of course he then shot Lennon and ended up in jail instead of pricey mental institution in California). And if you’ve seen Six Degrees of Separation (a most excellent play and movie, I might add), one character presents an argument linking Catcher to youth violence. . . but I’m not going to get into that. The two questions were originally quite separate in my mind, and I’m going to keep them that way.

As it happens, I have shot a gun, or a rifle, to be more precise. I was 12 years old and had been sent from my lovely camp to the disgusting boys’ camp (which was not across the lake) for the day. This was supposed to be a great treat, since there was a Dance in the evening. Whoopee. Anyway, during the day we got to do activities, including Riflery, which was of course not offered at our camp. I was pretty psyched, as I was a big fan (and still am–there is no sweeter sound than that of an arrow hitting the target) of archery, and I figured this would be even better. You could pierce a small tree with the bows we used, but this was gunpowder!

It was a great disappointment. Archery is a beautiful sport, full of clean lines and elegant angles, understandable physics. The graceful curve of the bow, the perfect pull and release of the string, the sweet sound as the brightly-feathered arrow hits the bullseye and buries itself in the straw. Archery puts one in mind of Robin Hood’s cool green forests, or of lazy afternoon lawn parties. Riflery, by contrast, involves the awkward positioning of yourself and your rifle, targets which are no more than black and white pieces of paper tacked to something, and the ugly sound of explosives. I may, of course, be biased towards archery, which I had a natural affitinity and talent for. I had no such success at riflery; I don’t think I hit the target once that day.

But I’m glad I did it. I’m opposed to guns, generally, for the unsophisticated reason that they were designed to kill things (so, of course, were bows and arrows–yet strangely, one doesn’t hear about many bow-slayings). Being opposed to something, however, does not mean you should be ignorant about it: on the contrary, I think the more you are opposed to something, the more you should know about it. It’s why the CIA exists, after all: knowing what the enemy thinks. But it’s also why Clarence Darrow is so brilliant in Inherit the Wind. He can quote the Bible as well, if not better than, William Jennings Bryan; he matches him line for line, point for point. If you like to win arguments as much as I do, knowing what your adversary knows is a useful skill. More importantly, though, knowing things, and having the experience of them, is worthwhile for its own sake. I never thought I’d say this, but I shall: Go fire a gun if you haven’t. Don’t aim it at someone, don’t join the NRA, don’t vote for people opposed to gun control. But know what you’re up against.

As for The Catcher in the Rye, I had an idea that it was a book you only enjoyed if you read it at a certain age. That theory has been blown out of the water, and I have no new one to replace it, but I was fascinated by the responses I got. If you haven’t written, or if you have more to say–positive or negative–I’d love to hear it. A great many books get referred to as “a Catcher in the Rye for this generation,” a phrase which has always annoyed me, as it suggests that books need remakes. (Have you ever heard anything referred to as “a Pride and Prejudice for this generation”? I thought not). But the phrase suggests a certain resonance, a this-book-changed-my-life kind of quality–and I would like to think that books still have the power to do that.

If and when I come up with any new theories on Catcher, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you might want to check out some of the responses, which I’ve posted anonymously. If yours is there and you want it taken down for some reason, or if you’ve got some thoughts you’d like added, just let me know.

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