Musings of A Salinger Thief

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Like a lot of people, I’ve loved JD Salinger since junior high. I grew up hanging out on a street corner in Wayne, Pennsylvania, down the street from Salinger’s old high school, Valley Forge Military Academy, which he seems to have based Catcher in the Rye’s Pencey Prep on.

Even in the early 2000’s, my town was haunted by Pencey kids. We called them cadets, and we saw cadets everywhere. Pimply kids with buzzcuts dressed in the uniforms of adult soldiers. In our town, kids did drugs, hooked up, and got in fights, but the cadets never did any of that. You’d see them in pairs, at the diner and at the movie theater. They were 1950’s relics with perfect manners and perfect posture.

Sometimes cadets ran away from school and wound up on our corner. I remember one who said he was a Prince in Saudi Arabia. He said if we could help him get home, there’d be a reward from his Dad, who’d be grateful when he found out what we’d saved his kid from.

I left that suburb and put Salinger away. I picked him up again when I moved to New York, which was haunted by the other kind of Salinger ghost -- sophisticated, morose Manhattan kids. I fixated on an unpublished Salinger short story called “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” Salinger refused to publish it, but through a long chain of happenstance, one copy landed at Princeton University.

Anybody can go to Princeton and read the story under supervision in a special room. So I did. I didn’t tell them I was a reporter, I just gave them my driver’s license and my old college ID and sat down with “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” Later, I reported a short radio piece about the story. I said that I loved “Ocean,” but I couldn’t tell if I loved it because of its special, forbidden aura or because it was truly great.

In the piece, I hinted that I’d found a way to copy the story down.

BOB GARFIELD: You've seen this thing. You've had it in your hands. You didn't steal it, did you?

P.J. VOGT: Uh – all right, well, the thing is-

BOB GARFIELD: Wow, I was looking for a straight no.

P.J. VOGT: If you read about it online, they make this big hoopla about how tight the security is at the Princeton Library, so, you know, there’s like multiple forms you have to sign and there’s special rooms and there’s a librarian that just watches you the whole time. And the first time I went, I found like it was a little bit exaggerated but there really is a lot of security and they really do watch you. The second time,, there wasn't as much security. And — I'm not saying that I did, but if one were so inclined, one could probably photograph every page of that story – with what –

BOB GARFIELD: With your telephone or something.

P.J. VOGT: Yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, if one were so inclined.

P.J. VOGT: If one were so inclined.

I felt entitled to the story, even though I knew Salinger wouldn’t have wanted me to read it. I told myself I’d earned my intrusion, both because of the connection I felt to his work and because I’d gone to such lengths to find the story. Further, I decided that if I’d chosen to read it despite Salinger’s wishes, how much worse could it really be to take a copy home?

Last Wednesday, a reporter from Buzzfeed got in touch to say that “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” had leaked online. She knew I’d read it. Could I confirm that the text was accurate? She was a Salinger fan too. She said she felt excited but sad to see the Salinger stories out there. I was surprised to find I felt sad too.

I keep thinking about how strange that is, that an entitled thief like me would find all this thievery saddening. The simplest explanation is that I’m just a hypocrite. I’m Gollum, who wants sole access to his precious, or I’m the hipster who wishes his favorite band had never gotten big.

This is very possibly true. But here’s an alternative to consider. Dead authors ask us not to read their work all the time. The question of what to do next - burn the papers or publish them? - is an old one, and frankly, to me, kind of boring. The world’s better for having more Kafka and Nabokov stories, even if they’re both rolling in their brilliant graves. But Salinger’s case was different. For years, his unpublished stories existed in a rare state between dissemination and death. You could read them, but only if you really wanted to.

Online, publishing can feel binary. A song leaks on YouTube then gets taken down, a book is published or banned. You can forget that there are degrees. A story that exists as a printout in a library lives in the world differently than a story that’s published to the front page of Reddit, wedged between weird news and comet gifs.

This week, thousands of people will read “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.” Some of them will read it because, like me, they love Salinger’s work enough to ignore his wishes. Many more will read it just because they were told not to. Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do. But I do wish that “Ocean” was still a ghost: half-here and half-not, visible only to those who yearned to see it so badly that they’d drive to New Jersey.