When I learned that J.D. Salinger had died, I was in the middle of sussing out some issues for my first project at work, pacing the floor of my home office, using the word “client” far more than I have in probably two years, struggling my way through an awful cold and sinus infection, all the while hoping that the new stainless-steel appliances we’d ordered were going to be delivered and later installed by our contractor.

My immediate reaction was “So? He was a renowned crank, and kind of a jerk, and hasn’t published anything in years and why do we do this every time someone of note dies GOD.”

But then I stopped. And listened to NPR lovingly recount the impact of Catcher in the Rye. The report featured a high school teacher who has been introducing Catcher to his students for more than 20 years. “This is the book they keep,” he said. “This is the one they never give away.”

And I remembered: I never have either. Yellow, worn and frayed, I have never let go of my original copy, the one my parents bought me for Christmas when I was in 7th grade. I’m looking at it right now, searching for underlined words, my name scrawled in the margins, dog-eared pages. Do you ever open a book and find something inside like that? As though these books you’ve been carrying around with you for years and years suspend time for you somehow by keeping those things for you? I still can’t open my high school English composition book and not find a hastily scribbled note from Joy or Jenni or Todd or someone and not instantly be transported back to the classroom. Those times really do live inside these pages for me.

I remember unwrapping The Catcher in the Rye; it was a grown-up Christmas for me. My first one. I also got Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation cassette and some socks and a sweater. Also? Liz Claiborne perfume. Holla for the triangle!

It’s funny to me now that I requested such a non-conformist book for such conformist reasons. I cut myself a modicum of slack, obviously, since I was all of 12, and when you’re 12 you desperately try to locate that secret space in the world where you’re unconditionally accepted by everyone for being staunchly, fiercely not like any of them at all. That place doesn’t exist, of course, but it takes years, many regrettable decisions concerning your hair, both its length and color, and the sheer exhaustion that comes from trying to fit in before you stop caring as much.

I wanted to read Catcher in the Rye because that’s what someone like the person I thought I wanted to be would read. It’s that simple. And I read it. And it changed everything.

Hyperbole aside, books like these for kids who lean towards awkwardness, like me, are game changers. This is how it happens for us. We know we’re supposed to like what everyone else likes, and for the most part we really do, but something else in the universe is calling us, moving us toward it, moment by moment, until we’re almost there. Books like Catcher land in our laps and it’s the first of many of those moments. Without it, we’re not ready for the next one when it comes along. We needed the first to unlock the rest.

This concept explains for me why I was able to appreciate Pixies’ Doolittle, BBSs of the early 1990s, sushi and Phyto’s Phytodefrisant.

These things changed my life, and something had to set in motion for that to happen. Of course I can’t attribute Catcher for why I am never without a particular hair product, but this is what happens when a book, the book, helps you get on the path to defining who you really are. You become open to the world, open to the possibility set before you, open to making the world your own.

I am certain it was probably my fifth read of Catcher before I understood any of the nuances of the book. Not that that mattered. Liberal use of the word “goddamn” in a book your parents bought for you alone adds an unquantifiable value to a person’s life. I can’t say that I particularly identified with Holden Caulfield. I have always been far too much of an optimist at heart, and I’ve never actually believed the world was out to “fuck me,” even as an angsty kid. But Salinger didn’t coddle his readers, and it somehow gave me permission to be courageous and stupidly brave. Even if I somehow ended up working for The Man.

Which, of course, I did. But I know who I am, and Catcher helped to make that possible, to say nothing of JP and Lynette who trusted their young pre-teen enough to give it to her.

So I’m grateful for his life, for his work, for what Salinger helped me to become. May he rest in peace. For real.