I was going through a “Why Didn’t I Read This in High School?” phase, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was up next on my reading list.
I was eager to download a copy of Salinger’s classic novel onto my Kindle. I’m a firm backer of the digital publishing revolution, since ebooks let you:
- Change the size and style of the text.
- Look up word definitions and background info on the spot.
- Highlight, makes notes, and export chunks of text.
These features are incredibly helpful when I’m writing book reviews (bobsbookblog.com), and must be a major timesaver for students working on school essays. (Back in my day we had to write out notes and quotes by hand on index cards, whippersnappers!)
But The Catcher in the Rye isn’t available on Kindle. You can’t get it on your Nook or iPad either. J.D. Salinger never allowed any other editions of his novel other than the one published by Little, Brown and Company in 1951. The breakout success of The Catcher in the Rye spooked Salinger, and he retreated to his rural Vermont home after the book’s publication. Salinger produced three additional books, but didn’t publish again after 1961.
Salinger died in 2010, but his estate still closely guards the copyright on his work, and had never allowed any adaptions. Film directors from Elia Kazan to Steven Spielberg have been turned away, and the Salinger Estate still hasn’t sanctioned audiobooks or digital editions.
If you want to read The Catcher in the Rye (or Salinger’s other work) you have to order the same Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback (now in its 98th printing) that’s been kicking around classrooms since forever. It’s got the original 1951 orangey cover art by E. Michael Mitchell — an ink sketch of a carousel horse and the NYC skyline — on both the front and back. Besides the title and “a novel by J.D. Salinger,” there is no other cover text, no sales copy, no About the Author copy, no blurbs from other authors or academics, and no “New York Times bestselling author.” Nothing.
The interior of the book is equally sparse. There is no forward or afterword. No advertisements for other books, no offers to join Little, Brown and Company’s Readers Club. There is no About the Author page here either. The Catcher in the Rye is 214 pages of Holden Caulfield’s inimitably cranky narrative, presented exactly how the author intended, and it’s been this way, unchanged, for nearly fifty years.
Salinger’s over-protectiveness guarantees his work is uniformly consumed. I experienced The Catcher in the Rye the same way, in the same font and format, as nearly everyone else who ever read the book. I dog-eared pages, underlined in pencil, and scribbled notes in the margins, the same way lit students have for decades. Salinger’s format constraints demand it.
According to a new documentary on J.D. Salinger, the late author left specific instructions for five books to be published between 2015 and 2020. I don’t know the Salinger Estate or Little, Brown and Company’s publishing plans, but launching new Salinger titles is an ideal time to bring all the author’s work into the digital realm. Contemporary literature should embrace contemporary formats, and ebooks are here to stay. Salinger’s work needs to be readily available, brought into the digital realm, and forever preserved in binary code.
Digitize Salinger! And Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, too!
Check out my review of The Catcher in the Rye here.
I published this column April 15, 2014. Harper Collins announced ebook and audio book editions of “To Kill A Mockingbird” would be released this summer on April 28, 2014. I’m not saying my brilliant column convinced 88-year-old Harper Lee to finally give approval to “digitize” her work … I’m just saying …