You ever have a hero? One you could rely on deep into the grave? In the last ten years or so, the term ‘hero’ has been taken away from people we idolise and handed back to people who do things like spread themselves across live grenades so as a bus load of school kids don’t have early funerals… and rightly so, but for the purposes of this piece, I’m rolling with the former because choosing something else doesn’t come close for me.
I’ve had a few and as the years have gone by, they’ve never let me down. Some are so obvious, they’re hardly worth mentioning if you know me. Paul Stanley from Kiss and Alice Cooper are the big guns. Their philosophy is not so different despite their (seeming) rivalry.
There’s also been a few that were a sign of the times - that I picked up and put down as I needed them - which might actually be the whole point of even having a hero.
I was obsessive about Bjorn Borg for a while simply because he was the ‘whole game’. I’m not sure what I got out of it but there it is. Boris Karloff was another… again, because when it came to monster movies, he was also ‘the whole game’. Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart - the whole game. There are a few others like this. Short life-spans with no other purpose but to dam the river when needed
But when it comes to books, it’s not so simple for me. Neil Gaiman came close, not least because I once picked up The Doll’s House Sandman graphic novel on a whim one Saturday afternoon back in something like ‘90/’91 (whenever it came out) when I was headed to a weekend-long party and was early for the train. (Of note here is that the money I spent on the book was supposed be money set aside for booze… go figure).
It had all the makings of the kind of party everybody talked about for years but I wouldn’t know. I spent the entire two days with my head in that book, drinking tea and eating whatever food my then (very understanding) girlfriend chose to put in front of me. Having presumably finished the book, I vaguely recall something about being chased by a horse in the dark and going home alone (natch). It was a long time ago but Gaiman has been pretty consistent and I’m still with him… but so is the rest of the world and that makes him a lot less attractive these days as a name to bandy about. These days I’m more likely to waft Michael Chabon’s name in front of your face as a name of somebody you should be reading. Mr Gaiman needs no more assistance from me at the moment.
Stephen King came close to a lifelong thing but wobbled too much and got replaced by Clive Barker… who also wobbled, but when I went back to King he was still too unstable for me. I keep up with them both still but it’s probably unreasonable to expect either to still be on their respective mountain tops, standing on one leg and juggling a very singular crown - particularly when John Connolly came along and whitewashed both of them for me.
Anyway, as the years have trickled by, those I didn’t recognise as heroes for the longest time have risen to the surface. Most of them were dead by the time I figured this out which gives it a certain kind of closure. It’s unlikely that they will become zeroes anymore - the work is complete. Raymond Carver, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Orwell and Dylan Thomas have weathered that storm with a certain grace I can only dream of but then, there’s this man:
One of the really big deals for me out in the world is J.D. Salinger. Aside from his books being some kind of misinterpreted influential template for my own work, I liked the way he went to his grave with two fingers in the air over never having his books made into films and how digital books could kiss his ass. It’s not how he wanted things to be and credit where it’s due, his estate continued to pipe cement into that wall since he died.
Until a year or so back:
His son, Matt, the very man who been mixing that cement since 2010, was interviewed by the New York Times and the article brought up some important things - namely, this:
‘…during a trip to China earlier this year, he realized that many young people overseas read exclusively on phones and digital devices, and that e-books were the only way to get his father’s writing in front of them.’
and from the horses mouth:
“He wouldn’t want people to not be able to read his stuff.”
And while we can sit here all day and argue that both Catcher In The Rye (55 million copies in 30 languages!) and Franny and Zooey are both still widely available in paperback (show me a bookshop without either and I’ll show you a bookshop without clue), the world has changed - and continues to change - bringing into sharp perspective my own observation that a book isn’t a book unless it’s actually being read. If somebody is not devouring the story, it’s just some paper with some thicker paper on the outside that lives on a shelf to show other people what sort of person you’d like them to think you are.
It brings up all kinds of horrible questions I never want to have to answer about what constitutes as ‘reading’.
But in the end, he’s right and if that’s the opinion of the last bastion of something I hold so dear, I need to swallow a plateful of humble pie topped with pride and also get to work on making things available digitally. It’s not so long ago that I seem to recall saying “Once you can read a book on your phone, the game will be over” and I would have been at least partially right.
There will always be those who love a physical book, how it feels in their hands, what it means to them and how they remember where they bought it from. Those are my kind of people but I’m damn sure that whole Gaiman episode I described above would never have happened if I had downloaded The Doll’s House to a portable reading device. Things change and time moves with it eventually crushing everything in its path that doesn’t want to ‘flow’.
It’s sad, but I guess it’s not sad at all if you’re under thirty. If you’re under thirty, it’s just the way things are and the way they’ve always been.
Out there in the world somewhere, there are most likely people for whom eight track was the Bees Knees too.
Time, huh. Can’t live with it…
Footnote: Salinger also had a good line in quotes, so here’s a few of my favourites - all of which sound a lot like things that come out of my own mouth…
I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.
It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to
There are still a few men who love desperately
I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s
If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good anymore
Meanwhile… here’s some great pics from the 2019 J.D. Salinger exhibit at New York Public Library: