Many of the five books you’ve chosen will be discoveries to our readers, but one will be familiar to all. When Annie Hall moved out of Alvy’s apartment, they fought over who owned The Catcher in the Rye. When did you first read it and what did it mean to you?
The Catcher in the Rye has always had special meaning for me because I read it when I was young – 18 or so. It resonated with my fantasies about Manhattan, the Upper East Side and New York City in general.
It was such a relief from the other books I was reading at the time, which all had a quality of homework to them. For me, reading Middlemarch or Sentimental Education was work, whereas reading The Catcher in the Rye was pure pleasure. The burden of entertainment is on the author. Salinger fulfils that obligation from the first sentence on.
Reading and pleasure didn’t go together for me when I was younger. Reading was something you did for school, something you did for obligation, something you did if you wanted to take out a certain kind of woman. It wasn’t something I did for fun. But The Catcher in the Rye was different. It was amusing, it was in my vernacular, and the atmosphere held great emotional resonance for me. I reread it on a few occasions and I always get a kick out of it.
At least until you created your familiar film persona, Holden Caulfield was the icon of American angst. Did you identify with him?
Not in any deep way.
Salinger’s protagonist is driven mad by the ugliness in life. What drives you nuts?
The human predicament: the fact that we’re living in a nightmare that everyone is making excuses for and having to find ways to sugarcoat. And the fact that life, at its best, is a pretty horrible proposition. But people’s behavior makes it much, much worse than it has to be.