The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger

William Faulkner understood The Catcher in the Rye as this, “His (Holden’s) tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there…. until he either gave up or was himself, by himself, by his own frantic buzzing, destroyed.”

This book is a funny one.

Not blatantly entertaining but surreptitiously so.

If somebody hands you a classic, they hand you a perspective to go with it. And gradually, as you read it, your mind’s eye recedes and your understanding of the protagonist becomes submerged and buoyed in the immediate nature of the story. And a story like Holden’s, with its undefeated realism, seems stagnant. But is it really?

Holden is an intelligently sensitive character. He demands your complete attention or nothing at all.

As a reader, you can only inhabit either one of the extremes. The story he narrates to you is but an echo through his own becoming. He reels you in in how carefully and incisively he tells his story.

I observed that his telling of his own despair, his hopelessness, his aloofness, his angst, is ultimately how he shields that very depressive realism of the world from the world.

Let me explain.

Depressive realism is the state of letting go of delusion. The very notion that a certain kind of living can make you feel happy, loved, worthy, and accepted is what’s challenged here. In Holden’s story, this is a fine education, women, friendship, and parenthood. Examples of this view are everywhere in the book.

What if, on the contrary, you viewed Holden as not a tragic hero or a great American teenager, but as a flawed human being? You recognize his naïveté as a part of growing up. His pinching indifference as the drawing out of a psyche that is more complex than the world would want him to believe.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

I remember contemplating Siddhartha’s spiritual journey in Herman Hesse’s novel as a solitary one. The ironic completeness of his protagonist through enlightened and carnal pleasures and Siddhartha’s conscious approach to living them.

Through The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the portal of change and illumination is revealed once more. Though less lyrically and more symbolically. You can read it as a profound guide to the consistency and relevancy of myth suffused in history, religion, psychology, and spirituality.

There is something truly revealing about Joseph Campbell’s manner of writing. It questions modern psychology and myth through the lens of human plight.

It threads the ascend and descend of human endeavor: highlighting its rusty and familiar bits. You read it not as a scholar would to cultivate an interpretation or hypothesis.

The structure is not dogmatically dragging. It’s individual and consciously aware – it’s hopeful.

Self-reflection is never possible on a collective scale. It’s never about the others, it’s always about you. Such lonely and shape-shifting contemplation and confrontation with the self can seem alarming and intimidating. But this book makes it easier.

So to reflect on the staggering and revelatory questions of life on a human level, to respond to it through your psyche alone opens up a new, deeper understanding. Then you have the tools to achieve self-reconciliation and gain back the beauty and terror of human nature.

It is possible, I believe, to awaken the memory of myth as it is to get closer to symbols and stories.

To explore the labyrinth of self-expression and consciousness again, in its vital and resplendent capacities, and find in them the prophetic oneness of human psychology.

Is it the otherness of human life that makes you understand yourself? Or is it your own reflection you are so afraid of learning about when you do?

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?”

To read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea without remembering its contemplative and thrilling playfulness is difficult. I haven’t read much of Ernest Hemingway besides A Moveable Feast; though, I have all of his works.

The Old Man and The Sea, in its entirety, is the loneliest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s more than enough to read about a gruesomely tiring tale of an old fisherman and a fish. But to have the little boy cast a spell of more solitude and persistence in the old man gives you, the reader, a deeper sorrow to swallow.

Hemingway once wrote, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” And that if a writer is good enough he is destined to “face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

This is deeply and eloquently mirrored in Hemingway’s writing.

Those simple words do more than their definitions to illuminate a desolate and cruel world. A world in which old age is often spoken about for longer than it is understood.

This book doesn’t speak of old age. Nor does it show you what it’s like for the world. The structure and language are omnipresent in that they offer you a voyage where you inhabit the vast nature of the sea and the undying and unforgiving nature of the old man. And how the roles keep reversing from one to the other.

You say this is just a story about an old man unwilling to let go.

I say this is human nature. To find something that serves you and to see an image of yourself reflected in it, no matter how young or old and small or big it makes you, something that you know better than anyone or anything, and it knows you.

I figured it doesn’t matter whether you lose or win to the world. You’ve already won by never giving it up.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Turning to the multicultural and labyrinthine narrative of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, you’re reminded of the multi-faceted and myriad tendencies of a self.

A book that reads like a journal into the lives of 12 women – connected somehow in kinship and affectation – is sketched in a fictively symmetrical format.

The first few stories embrace a perceptible current. They prepare you for what’s to come. You’re as much a part of it as you’re the chanced observer. There are no full stops in the book in that every sentence is broken into smaller pieces so that it feels as uninhibited as the flow of water.

To me, it proves the spirit of incandescent and translucent honesty of the characters.

Reading this book is no simple feat. The succinctness of each woman’s story may trick you into believing so. What Bernardine Evaristo does is she embraces certain consistent motifs that run along the length of the book. And out of this emerges a few crocheted structures. Upon each thread, each stream of thought, a woman is willed into being. You read her life to fruition.

If at some point you stop reading her story, this “girl, woman, other” who is a sentient presence, by setting the book aside, it’s as if you’ve completely erased her.

The book’s ideal reader is someone who appreciates a quick and light read. It unabashedly taps into feminism but remains as a fictive impersonation of it. The boundaries of which, for the sake of literary fiction, have been pushed to extremes. And this was a significant let-down. It also brings up questions of entitlement. But they’re posed simply as questions; the answers fail to surface as the story stretches in its narration.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Did it matter then, she asked herself, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?”

If somebody told you that an hour is long enough, would you believe it? That, when measured against a string of forgotten, dry, and vain days, an hour is your only means of getting through life. The scales of time on a clock are well-defined, perhaps, to illustrate desire and the lack of it. The scales of time, however, inside our minds are not the same. They resist the temptation of passing. They grasp at what’s near; what’s remarkable and symbolic. Time asks nothing of us and still, we give to it our whole selves. So that later on, when we have become forgotten memories to time, time is somehow immeasurable to us.

Reading about age against the receding grains of mortality is thrilling. It’s disquieting as much as it’s the only thing sincere to the act of living. And Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which is a book about a single day, is overwrought with the temporality of humanity. And why, as long as we are alive, living is a serious anomaly that most of us, for the most part, are oblivious to.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book about contemplation and presence. It halts the train of time so that it can offer you, in these troubling and uncertain moments, budding hope. Woolf’s embryonic stream of consciousness and awareness of time is insightful and inspiring. After reading To The Lighthouse and The Years first, my admiration for her work has only deepened.

The central theme of the book is time and its lasting effect. The narrative is perplexing; her language is determined to put you where her characters are placed; where their lives are given identity and also where they’ve been deprived of them. I wish I could have read this book in a single day. To live the entire story myself and walk the streets of London, past the urbanity of life. Precisely because it so redefines our idea of a normal life, considering the global pandemic. And helps us understand Woolf highlighting hers, in 1923, when Influenza was only a few years old.