Do you ever read a book’s copyright page? I bet you don’t. After all, why would you? It’s just a bunch of legalese, the publisher’s address, some odd numerical sequences that only rare book collectors care about, and maybe a boilerplate assurance that the book is a work of fiction. The latter is included so that Aunt Dolores, no matter how much she may think the wicked step-mother is based on her, can’t sue the author for libel. But what if I told you reading the copyright page, particularly for older books, may hold the key to understanding some of the more obscure references contained within? Don’t believe me, maybe my buddy Holden can help you see the light.
The Catcher Opening
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have two hemorrhages apiece if I told you anything pretty personal about them.
That right there, for those who may not be familiar, is the opening two sentences to The Catcher in the Rye, one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve read this classic several times in my life and, without fail, every time I did so, I wondered what that reference to a magician had to do with anything.
If you’re chuckling at my naivete, congratulations. Please keep reading, and as always, keep your hands and feet to yourself while the blog is in motion.
I hadn’t read Catcher in at least eight years until picking it back up last week. And, like clockwork, I stumbled once again on that David Copperfield reference. Only problem, I was on an airplane and not about to buy in-flight WiFi just to figure it out. So, as I had done on every previous occasion, I continued reading and by the time I got home, completely forgot all about it.
That is, until a little dose of serendipity thrust it back into my consciousness.
David Copperfield’s Kind of Crap
My preoccupation with my shadow occupation (more about that in coming weeks, perhaps) led to me falling weeks behind in my weekly storycraft study. A big part of my education comes in the form of reading the transcripts of the weekly Story Grid podcast, a site I’ve mentioned several times before. Well, would you believe that Shawn Coyne, without making specific reference to Catcher, dropped the David Copperfield line in the very next episode I read? And in the same context.
Coyne had just finished describing a way to use a prologue to tease out some of the action to come later in the book. Then, in the next sentence, stated: “Then [the readers] settle in and then you can lay on the David Copperfield stuff at the beginning of the story to get you to the climactic point.”
That reference right there not only borrows Salinger’s verbiage, but in the same context. David Copperfield had become shorthand for lengthy, chronological backstory. But why?
A quick Google of the phrase “David Copperfield kind of crap” led to a detailed analysis of Salinger’s novel that acknowledged the David Copperfield reference. As it turns out, and which Coyne and other English major-types have probably always known, was that it was not a reference to the illusionist of the same name. No, it was a reference to a novel by Charles Dickens titled — you guessed it — David Copperfield.
The Dickens novel is a lengthy birth-to-maturity story about a boy named David Copperfield, who some believe to be an altar-ego of sorts of Charles Dickens (a belief no doubt aided by the mirrored initials). Anyway, Dickens’ novel is a linear story about the life of the title character. In other words, the lengthy year-by-year backstory that modern readers only tolerate in small doses.
Alas, I had my answer! But what about the illusionist?
My Facepalm Moment
Aside from A Christmas Carol and the many films and plays it has inspired, my only other familiarity with Dickens comes from a forced-reading of A Tale of Two Cities in high school. A brick of a book I didn’t even come close to finishing at the time. So I’m going to give myself a pass on not knowing the breadth of Dickens’ bibliography. Still, I should have at least known the reference had nothing to do with the magician.
As a child of the 1970s, I grew up at a time when David Copperfield (the magician) was a bit of a household name. I can’t recall any of his tricks or even what he looked like, but popular culture dictated we knew of him. Like the Kardashians, I’m not aware of anything they’ve ever done, or even what they look like, but I know they’re a thing.
Quick question: When was The Catcher in the Rye first published? If you asked me to guess I would have said mid-to-late 1960s. And I’d have been wrong.
Follow-up question: When was David Copperfield the magician most famous? I would guess the 1980s. And I’d only be partially correct, as his career spans decades.
Regardless the accuracy of my guesses, I should have realized, and perhaps in my gut I did, that Salinger was in no way referencing a magician who probably wasn’t even born yet!
Like I said, facepalm moment.
The Catcher in the Rye was first published as a novel in 1951. David Copperfield was born in 1956 (in a town in NJ just a few miles from where I was raised — and one whose high school was my track team’s chief rival). Furthermore, David Copperfield is not David Copperfield’s real name. A budding young illusionist by the name of David Kotkin took the Copperfield moniker at age 18. Why? He liked the name of the character in the Dickens novel (originally released as a serial during 1849-1850).
Back to the Front Matter
What does this have to do with reading copyright pages? Had I have bothered to read the copyright page before beginning the book, I would have had that number — 1951 — fresh in my mind as I began page one and I would have known, at the very least, that Salinger was in no way referencing a magician who was popular throughout the eighties and nineties. I still wouldn’t have gotten the Dickens reference, but I’d have been at least a little less confused.
I do most of my reading on a Kindle and Amazon, in their effort to get readers enjoying their books as fast as possible, designed the Kindle to open to the first page of the story. For the past year I have gotten in the habit of immediately using the “Go To” feature to start from the cover, so I can read all the front-matter and make sure I’m not missing any details. I would love to set this as a default preference, but alas I cannot.
So why didn’t I do that with Catcher? Because I actually had my twenty-year-old, dog-eared, paperback copy with me. And let me tell you, holding open a rigid paperback with one hand while trying to enjoy a cup of coffee in the other while on a turbulent airplane is no fun.
I realized the next day that I actually had the book on my Kindle as well. I’m currently 65% done reading it. I have no idea what page number that is.
The next time you read a book, especially anything you suspect is more than thirty years old, be sure to give the copyright page a quick glance. Note the oldest of the dates listed — the initial publication date — and take a moment to think about the worldly goings-on of that era before you begin. Had World War II started yet? Was the Cold War over? What were the social and sexual norms of the era? Was commercial air travel a reality? Did the Internet exist? We’re not going to always understand all the pop culture references included in the books we read, least of all those from books that predate our parents, but taking a moment to consider the era in which the author was writing can help us better understand the context of the story.
Post Image by SimonPix, used under Creative Commons.