Friday, January 29, 2010

On Salinger, Libraries, and Access to Information

I’ve always taken a very unsympathetic view of Salinger's relentless stranglehold on his published works. The control he exercised strikes me as both selfish and counter to how humans learn, grow, and express themselves.

Yes, I know they’re his.

Yes I know copyright law protects them.

Yes, I know he's been under no obligation to permit audio versions, commemorative editions, stage adaptations, 50th Anniversary reprints, screenplays, illustrated editions, alternate cover art, or any of the other things that are a regular part of the popular fiction life cycle. It’s all perfectly legal and all well within his rights.

That said, Salinger’s pathological control over his presumably precious and apparently unalterable writings will make their appearance in the public domain all the sweeter. Frankly, I can’t wait. You see, I work in a library. I value information. I like it to be easily accessible. I like to see it change hands and be transferred without a lot of fuss and without a lot of barriers. I want information to be there for people to learn from, comment on, build upon, satirize, and re-imagine. While I understand the need for intellectual property rights and laws, I know in my heart that progress occurs when we share information, not when we hoard it. Salinger has been a hoarder, and we, as a culture, are less for it.

This issue of access to information isn't just about having works available in the larger cultural context. Often it's a much more individual concern. As a librarian, I find myself frequently asked to help parents find audiobooks for children and young adults with learning disabilities or reading disorders. For these kids, audiobooks are often the only reading they can do. Since Salinger never authorized any audio versions of his titles, this group gets shut out. The same holds true for people who are blind or visually impaired. Again, no audio versions, and no large-print editions. Salinger never signed off on them. Apparently the Salinger canon is only meant for the able-bodied among us. That's selfish and wrong.

In his misguided attempt to protect his works, Salinger has succeeded in nothing more than making them supremely attractive targets for ridicule and exploitation. He’s treated them as sacred when they’re not. He’s acted as though he somehow gets the last word when he doesn’t. We do, us and everyone that comes after us. Appropriation, satire, misuse, retelling, and outright theft are part of our cultural heritage. Shakespeare has seen it. So has Dickens. It's happened to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Manet. It will happen to Salinger too. He can't stop it. It's what we do. We share, lift, borrow, steal, and build. Frankly, if Salinger was so concerned that people might comment, question, alter, forge, fake, or exploit his work, he should have never published it.

I hope I live long enough to see the copyright on his novels expire. When it does, my fingers are crossed for an avalanche of plays, film adaptations, puppet shows and junior high-school recitations. I want Holden Caulfield action figures, coffee mugs, and backpacks. I want to see sandwiches named Holden on Rye. I want to see Franny and Zooey dolls. I want to see a Glass family version of Trivial Pursuit – or better still - a Glass family game show with Howie Mandel as the host. I want to see a version of "Chutes and Ladders" with Holden, Maurice, Sunny, and Sally as playing pieces.

…and if that sounds a bit mean-spirited, I'd suggest that Salinger’s been asking for it all along.


  1. Very, very interesting, Jeff. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I'm a bookmark collector--can we have some bookmarks? : ) You've given me a new perspective on Salinger--should be interesting to see what happens.

  3. Nothing is preventing people from creating, say an audio book of 'Catcher'. You just can't make any money doing it. I wonder how quick the takedown notice would be on Youtube for the Star Wars/Catcher mashup?