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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Salinger, Change and Generalizations

Last week, I took some books to a used bookstore to cash them in. While one of the clerks was evaluating them, the clerk at the front desk asked the other clerks, and everybody else within earshot, “Hey, did you hear J.D. Salinger died today?”

Some said no, some said yes. 

One of the clerks offered an opinion to a customer he was talking to, “J.D. Salinger never wrote anything that changed anybody's life. And he butchered the language.” He repeated himself, almost as if to convince himself.

“Not a fan, huh?” the customer asked.

“No. He just never wrote anything that changed anybody’s life.”

The Catcher in the RyeI have never read The Catcher in the Rye. I don’t know much about Salinger – other than the fact that he’s kept a low profile for a long time. (According to this article, I’m not sure he could be considered a recluse.) But I had a hard time believing that his writing never changed anybody’s life.

And what exactly does that mean? I’ve read essays, articles and white papers that have changed my perspective. Last summer I read a white paper called “The Missional Church” by Tim Keller. In it he makes a point about a British missionary who went to India in 1950 who returned home 30 years later to discover that the culture had changed but the church had not. It was still operating with a 50s mentality. 

One of the many problems with that mentality is, relatively few people outside the church can relate to a 50s culture inside the church. But rather than adapt, the church has created Christian sub-cultures in an attempt to maintain a culture that no longer exists. Such sub-cultures are relatively unknown to the culture at large. And that seems counter productive to taking the gospel to the masses.

I’ve believed most of this for a long time, but I never connected the dots until I read that white paper. As a result of this, I am engaging culture differently. I find myself being for more tolerant. I find myself processing culture differently. I find myself engaged rather than detached.

Did that white paper change my life? By definition, change can be as small as a slight alteration of course or as big as a total transformation. I don’t know where this fits on the scale, but I don’t really care. Most change is subtle anyway.

Giving the clerk at the bookstore the benefit of the doubt, I think he was saying Salinger’s work never transformed anybody. I don’t know how he knows this, but when I got home I did a little research to find out if anybody has been writing about the ways in which Salinger’s writing might have changed them.

I found a number of comments online from people who did indeed say his writing changed them. I don’t really understand the context of their comments because, again, I’ve never read anything by Salinger. I need to change that, by the way. But I was easily convinced that the clerk was wrong – even if he was referring to change in the transformational sort of way.

I don't want to start a debate about Salinger's work and the way it did or did not change people or whether that change was good or bad. Instead, this incident was just another reminder to be careful about making broad generalizations.


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