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'Catcher' caught: Audiobook of Salinger novel made for library service for the blind

By Hillel Italie (CP) – 3 days ago

WASHINGTON — Push the play button and hear the famous teenager's lament. It is recited in a sly, middle-aged twang, like an adult reading in a grade school classroom, one about to be told that the grown-up world is a nest of phonies.

"I mean I've left schools and places I didn't even know I was leaving them," says the narrator. "I hate that. I don't care if it's a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I'm leaving it. If you don't, you feel even worse."

The narrator is Holden Caulfield of "The Catcher in the Rye," but the voice — a light, steady baritone — belongs to Ray Hagen. He is a longtime reader for the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which provides books on tape ("talking books") and in Braille. This recording, book number RC 47480 in the library's catalogue, is the closest anyone will likely come to an official audiobook edition of J.D. Salinger's classic novel.

The author, who died in January at age 91, never granted audio rights and was known for stopping those who used his material without permission. But under copyright law, the service is allowed to record any book, assuming no production is made available to the general public. Tapes from the program are free and can only be played on machines provided by the library that work at a different speed than standard releases.

Phyllis Westberg, Salinger's longtime literary agent, confirmed that no commercial audio version of "Catcher" exists, but otherwise declined comment.

Like other works for the blind, the library edition of "Catcher" includes not just the full text, but the title and copyright pages and other materials. An introduction warns of strong language, describes Holden as "an ancient child of 16" and cites his "perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure."

Hagen, 74, recorded a version in the late 1970s and a second one in 1999 — the version currently in circulation — after the original master deteriorated. During a recent interview at the library service's recording studio, Hagen noted he was 63 when he rerecorded "Catcher." He acknowledged he might have been "long in the tooth" for Holden, but said that the key was "attitude."

"It's a first person book by a teenager, a disaffected teenager," says Hagen, animated and reflective with wavy, brushed back hair; jeans; a denim vest and a brown shirt with buttons in different colours. "Well, I was a disaffected teenager and I hadn't forgotten anything about life at that age, so I told the story truthfully, the way you would act a part in a play."

The National Library Service includes numerous works otherwise unavailable on tape, from Thomas Pynchon's "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow" to "The Essays of E.B. White" and Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night." Prominent collections of poetry, an art form made for being read out loud, can only be heard through the library's program, including the collected poems of Richard Wilbur, W.S. Merwin's "Opening the Hand" and Richard Hass' Pulitzer Prize winning "Time and Materials."

"The reason there isn't an official audiobook for 'Time and Materials' is because nobody ever asked me to do one," Hass says. "There's actually a rich shared underground among poets of readings and lectures and CDS and tapes people send to each other. Somebody just sent me a CD of (poet) James Wright's last reading. Somebody else sent me a CD of Christopher Ricks reading obscure English poets on the BBC."