Friday, January 29, 2010

2 Boys, 2 Books

The deaths within a day of one another of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn struck powerful chords in my memory.

Fittingly, it was my eldest son John who alerted me to Salinger's death.  I remembered my own introduction to Mr. Salinger, whose most famous book had just come out as my generation was preparing to enter college.  For years our favorite pejorative was "phony."  But I particularly remembered when John was 15, flailing about in a turbulent and troubled adolescence, and was given a copy of "Catcher" to read. He devoured it, then the rest of Salinger's ouvre, and not only found a path past many of his personal demons, but became a true literatus.  Today, himself a father, he is one of the best-read men of my acquaintance, and among the very most knowledgeable about fine literature and poetry. He is living evidence of the truth of Thoreau's remark that "many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book."  Though we are miles apart, John and I conducted our own ritual to Mr. Salinger's memory by re-reading "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

I met Daniel Ellsberg through my friend and New York Times colleague, Neil Sheehan, to whom Mr. Ellsburg entrusted his copy of a massive study of the Vietnam war that came to be known as "The Pentagon Papers," for which our newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize.  But I never kew about Ellsberg's close friendship with Howard Zinn until I searched the internet to read Mr. Zinn's obituaries and found Ellsberg's own tribute to the popular historian, activist and teacher. It focused on their participation in social protests on behalf of peace and civil rights and I thought again how my late grandson, Logan, would have fit right in with them.

In his immediate post-adolescence Logan was adrift, seemingly without purpose to his life.  He had, however, become an avid reader; he was seldom without a book in hand.  One day the book in hand was Zinn's great "People's History of the United States" and another young man began a new era in his life.  Logan became a prolific writer of poetry, polemics and essays on the very causes that Zinn espoused.  He organized peace rallies, spoke to them and renewed his pursuit of a long-forgotten childhood ideal to become a history teacher himself. He became a magnet to troubled teen-agers on whom society had given up, and helped them to find new paths of their own. He organized a chapter of Food Not Bombs and prepared and carried meals to the homeless.  He had a load of them in his little pick-up truck when he had the tragic fatal crash.

Hundreds of people of all ages gathered for his memorial service on the ocean shore. Many spoke about the ways in which an extraordinary young man had touched their lives for the better.  One by one they pledged their assistance to the creation of the only memorial they deemed proper for him: a library.  Its first volumes would be the collected works of Howard Zinn.

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