With some authors, it’s hard to know where to start. Stephen King has over fifty published books. Philip K. Dick, William Faulkner, Haruki Murakami, and most of my other favorite writers have more than ten.
Salinger has only four published books (so far) and a few scraps, so this’ll be easy for me to sort out for you.
My suggestion is reading Salinger’s books in order of publication date (in fact I think that’s a good rule of thumb for any author that you’re unsure of where to start). With Salinger, this is truly the best way to go.
1. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
If you’re completely unfamiliar with this book, I’m not going to try to explain what a phenomenon of American literature it is. Read it blind; see if you like it.
Catcher is Salinger’s only true novel. He mostly worked in short stories and novellas.
I first read Catcher in my senior year of high school. I read it again in college. I read it another time in my later 20s. I read it at least once more in my 30s. I’ll probably read it again when I get my library situation ironed out (most of my books are all in boxes now).
This is a novel that stands the test of time. And if you ‘get it’, you’ll love it. I notice something new each time I read it. It speaks to me on a different level each time I read it.
Anyone who says that Holden is just a whiny spoiled brat doesn’t understand this novel at any level. That’s okay. We all have different opinions, but if you’re going to get into Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye is your must first stop.
2. Nine Stories (1953)
The title says it all. This is a collection of nine short stories by J. D. Salinger. It includes one of my all-time favorite short stories “The Laughing Man”, the shocking and controversial “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, and another one of my all-time favorites “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”. Also, I can’t forget to mention the extraordinary “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”.
I’ll be honest: there are a couple of stories in this collection that don’t do much of anything for me, but if you skip this book, you’ll be missing out on some of Salinger’s best work.
3. Franny and Zooey (1961)
Published separately in the 1950s in the New Yorker, these two stories were collected as one book in 1961. After Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, it was almost exclusively the Glass family for Salinger.
This book is a collection of a long short story (“Franny”) and its sequel (“Zooey”), a novella. This is where some of the critics started to turn on Salinger. For me, recently, Franny and Zooey has been my favorite Salinger book. I don’t want to overhype it, but there’s a lot in these two stories to notice. Universal truths are going to be true no matter when they’re told, and Zooey’s critique of college professors is a particular favorite of mine.
“Zooey”, especially, seems to be rambling and going nowhere, but the ending for me is near perfect in how it ties everything together.
Like Franny and Zooey, this is another pair of stories originally published in the New Yorker in the 1950s and then collected in book form in the 60s.
“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” is Salinger’s best written story (although I think I like “The Laughing Man” just a bit more overall for pure enjoyment and nostalgia). It’s humorous, poignant, and has a great look into one of American literature’s greatest characters: Seymour Glass. This story makes me laugh a lot and one of the characters is a great callback to The Catcher in the Rye. Even if you don’t like it as much as I do, a writer can learn a lot by studying this story.
I like to call “Seymour: An Introduction”, “Advanced Salinger Studies”. It’s something for the serious Salinger aficionado, which is why I put as number four on this list. It’s more of an essay and series of musings about the character rather than a properly plotted story. It might not be as light and easy-to-read as some of Salinger’s other work, but it’s definitely worth reading. There’s a depth to this work that’s missing from most of our modern day entertainment, and Salinger’s precise writing should bring joy to any “skilled reader”.
5. Odds and Ends
I don’t know if it’ll always be available, but there is a collection of Three Early Stories. There’s a reason why Salinger never published these himself. The stories aren’t as strong as his other material, but for me they’re still worth reading.
Some of his other uncollected works can be tracked down with some internet searches. They can legally be obtained with a little work and a lot of money.
Do you want a rundown of Salinger’s uncollected and unpublished works? Head on over to DeadCaulfields.com, the greatest Salinger website in the world and run by Salinger scholar Kenneth Slawenski.
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