JD Salinger Portrait Session

In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” a story in J. D. Salinger’s second book, Nine Stories (1953)—his first was his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—all four characters, two girls in their teens and two men in their early twenties, are so vividly drawn and speak in such perfectly rendered idiomatic American English that the reader might be watching them in a movie.  These days the story also has the quality of a faultless antique: a Manhattan taxi fare, for example, comes to 65 cents.

With the stunning WikiLeaks release of hundreds of thousands of confidential or secret State Department cables, the website’s detractors have argued that America’s global bargaining position is immeasurably weakened, and that our diplomatic allies are imperiled by the sometimes damaging and damning revelations of behind-the-scenes decision-making.

At the same time, researchers at The Nervous Breakdown have discovered a treasure trove of information that will force a complete reassessment of the postwar literary climate—and perhaps forever change our notions of authorship. Samples:

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

If you’ve read it, you’ve never forgotten. Like every other person of my generation and so many before mine, I read Catcher in the Rye during my first year of high school. I had learned to expect the worst of any book assigned for school, but after Salinger’s first sentence hooked me, I devoured the novel. I sat up in bed that night—dorky headlamp switched on—and ripped through the book greedily.

Several weeks ago, while at my parents’ house, my mother started talking about her escape from the concentration camp in the former Yugoslavia, post World War II. Most of the stories my mother shared about the camp I’d heard before, many times before, and so it took me a minute before I realized what she’d said. This story was new.