Wrapping paper. Sugar-sweet carols. Televised cartoon specials. Noise-making toys. Tinsel everywhere. I have four children, so this is how my Christmases have looked and sounded for the past 17 years. And that's great. This is just how it should be — loud and colorful and joyful.
But I need my alone time, so every year I've managed to carve out a little space just for myself during these end-of-year celebrations. While the kids are watching those television specials or playing with their toys or baking cookies, I've made it a point to take a book off the shelf, sit, and read. And for many years — more than I can remember, really — that book has been Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.
I can't even recall why this is the book. It isn't about Christmas or the New Year. Santa doesn't appear, nor do reindeer or a trimmed tree. And yet, this book gives me comfort, each page filled with a nostalgia of my own making.
The copy I've been reading for all these years — a Bantam Books paperback edition published in 1964 — has been carried from house to house as we've moved, and from room to room as I find a new spot to read. This year, though, is even more poignant for me. Among the words of Salinger within these dog-eared, sepia pages with the covers taped together, are favorite passages, sentences, and whole paragraphs underlined. These marks aren't just mine. Many were made by my old friend Jim Phillips.
It was Jim who, when I was a young man in that moment when reading might seem like something not to be carried in the baggage from childhood to adulthood, rekindled an interest in reading for me that had been dormant since grade school. We were roommates and would sit for hours discussing Salinger and Vonnegut and Kesey and Kerouac. There were late nights in bars when we each hinted that we, too, might be writers someday. It's the sort of thing said aloud only between the closest of friends and after too many beers.
Jim would go on to be a songwriter, fronting bands and playing solo shows in Memphis and, later, his adopted home of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I hear so much of that literature he loved in his songs now. This copy of Franny and Zooey was his, packed up with my own books at some point during one of our many ill-conceived moves as nomads in our early 20s.
Jim died last May, far too young at the age of 46. While I still have his songs playing in heavy rotation at home and my wife and I share stories of our friend with our kids, this will be the first year reading Franny and Zooey without being able to talk with him about it. But there will be his inspiration, underlined in ink on every other page.
Jim loved reading books, but more than that, I think, he loved talking about them. Books beget conversation, something in shorter and shorter supply these days as we opt for texts and tweets. We were friends long before technology caught up, though it did help us to keep in touch over the years since he moved away.
Memory is what we get from books, nostalgia tucked neatly in the gutter like so much ephemera found in used bookstores. During this time of new and shiny gifts, where new books will certainly be stacked up on my night table, it's the old that I go for, the familiar, the comfortable. Like a good song and the smell of Mom's cookies baking in the oven, a book's title or opening line can transport us back to a time that might have been happier if not simpler. What are your favorites? Which do you pick up again and again to read in full or to flip to a particular chapter? Could you go immediately to one on a bookshelf if asked to retrieve it?
Franny and Zooey isn't about Christmas, but it is about family, and so is this time of year. And even though my family feels lighter by one, I have memories to see me through to the new year.