[ BOOK LIVES ] What Have You Done To Us, Mr Salinger?

The day after J.D. Salinger died, a friend I have known since junior college days told me that The Catcher in the Rye was THE book that changed his life.

I wasn’t surprised at all that a book can have an impact, but the extent of the influence Salinger’s book had on this old buddy left me rather speechless.

Bear with me, because this story is better told with all the details intact.

At 16, if I had listened to my heart and followed my dream of becoming a fighter pilot, I would have gone to a Polytechnic, get a diploma, and then sign up as a pilot trainee.

Back then, it was the only profession worthy of my consideration.

Instead, I allowed my family members to talk me out of that route and ended up in one of the elite junior colleges.

The first week in JC was nice, because it was only orientation and new girls to look at.

When school work started to pile up, it was clear that most of us were JC misfits.

Soon and sure enough, I found out more than half of my classmates didn’t want to be there.

To my surprise, most of the guys in my class had junior college as their last choice.

I came to the conclusion that the overall ‘O’ level result was so bad that year that everyone who qualified for JC was channeled to JC, never mind if one just wanted a diploma.

By mid-term, most of us were still asking why.

At the end of year one, I failed all my subjects except Chinese, but was nevertheless promoted to JC2.

By year two, I replaced going to physics classes with carrom games, and even tried convincing my teacher who sought me out in the canteen that projectile and gravity were easier to comprehend using the flying disks.

When the ‘A’ levels were announced, I had 5 ‘O’ levels passes and had little choice but to repeat another year.

That was when I met Ah Hui.

When you are a repeat student, what you are expected to do is to hang your head low and study hard.

In the elite JC, very few people fail, so naturally, I felt rather shameful and unwanted.

And Ah Hui noticed all that and put in lots of effort to make me feel at home in my new class.

Soon, we were attending lectures together.

Let’s put it this way, the second second year of JC was not very different for me.

I was still confused over demand and supply, H2O and C2O.

Honestly, I didn’t care.

But what was really fun was talking about music and movies with Ah Hui.

In my second attempt at ‘A’ levels, i did a little better with 2 Es and 3 ‘O’s.

I was just happy to have a full certificate to say I completed my ‘As’.

My teachers were just relieved that they won’t be seeing me again.

Ah Hui, as I was to learn many years later, didn’t do that well, but it was only when he told me about the Salinger’s connection that I realized why.

According to him, he was trying to study in the school library one day, and just out of the blue, he looked back at the shelves behind him and stared right into the spine of Salinger’s book.

“The red spine just glowed, it was eerie, unreal.”

He checked it out immediately and read it cover to cover in one sitting and then, his world just exploded.

Suddenly, he discovered a new universe.

“Catcher of the Rye was very important to me as a reader,” Ah Hui told me.

“After reading it, I was able to move away from Sidney Sheldon and on to the Picadors.”

“I discovered a new world of serious fiction.”

He added, “I don’t think I would have been who I am today if not for the book.”

Ah Hui claimed he never saw the world the same way after that, and he was convinced that had I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in JC, I would probably be a notorious criminal who will go in and out of prison.

And why did he arrive at this conclusion?

Because I would have been very angry with the world full of phonies.

I don’t know, I just don’t know.

I guess I should be thankful that I read it when I was about 26.

But I am even more grateful that I found in another book – Don McCullin’s Hearts of Darkness – the purpose for my own life.

It was the dark images in McCullin’s war anthology and moved me to become a photographer.

Still I think the world is full of phonies.

In fact, after that heart-to-heart chat with Ah Hui, we started calling each other phoney.

And this phoney just wants to know, “Which phoney book changed your life?”