(Audio)Book Talk: MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Rakoff (read by the author)

Audiobook read by the author
Knopf (June 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0307958000 / 9780307958006)
Nonfiction: memoir, 272 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible Studios, June 2014, ASIN B00KAGAMTI)

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MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Rakoff: audiobook discussion The 3 Rs Blog

When Joanna Rakoff left graduate school in London and returned home to New York City, she was rather at loose ends. As an aspiring poet, a job somewhere in the publishing industry seemed like a good idea for the time being, and following a friend’s referral, she wound up hired as an assistant at a very traditional literary agency—so traditional that it doesn’t possess a single computer, despite this being well into the 1990s. Rakoff’s primary job requirement was handling large amounts of correspondence…on a large, rather intimidating IBM Selectric typewriter.

The old-fashioned office wasn’t the only intimidating thing Rakoff encountered, and mastering the typewriter proved far easier than getting a handle on her boss, let alone the agency’s best-known client, the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger. Joanna managed to obtain a master’s degree in English without ever reading any of this stories, but she soon learned one of her primary tasks in this job would be to respond to the deluge of mail from Salinger’s fans, which he had a long tradition of refusing to read or personally acknowledge. The agency had several form-letter templates for this purpose, but as Joanna became caught up in reading the letters and discovering how these correspondents felt about Salinger she found herself increasingly tempted to go off-script and make personal connections with them.

My Salinger Year reflects on Rakoff’s experience of getting a foot in the door of the publishing industry as it enters a time of transition—one some might say it’s still fumbling through. Her old-fashioned employer is losing more clients than it’s signing as Rakoff’s boss resists a changing business model (one of them: Judy Blume, soon to publish her third adult novel), and while she’s well aware that this job is not a career-maker, she comes to appreciate what she gains from it…including, more than six months in, finally reading the complete works of J.D. Salinger. Rakoff never names her boss or “The Agency” where she was employed. In some ways this seems excessively cagey, as the curious can probably find out for themselves with a little help from Google, anyway (“J.D. Salinger’s literary agent” should work). I wasn’t curious enough to do that; ultimately, I didn’t think that degree of specific detail would add much to the story she wanted to tell.

The structure of My Salinger Year resembles a “stunt memoir”—“I’m going to do this thing for this amount of time and write a book about it”—but I really appreciated the fact that it’s not. More than a decade after the fact, Rakoff was able to see the narrative potential in a specific period in her early adulthood. and that’s what she built her memoir around. Rakoff reads the audiobook version herself, and while it’s not the most polished performance, her connection to the material can’t be faulted. This one has obvious appeal to book lovers, but readers who enjoy stories set in the workplace and the early post-college years might enjoy spending some time with My Salinger Year.


Rating: Book and audio, 3.75 of 5

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Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century. 

At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency’s decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger’s devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and liberating terms. 

Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. My Salinger Year is a coming-of-age story and a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.

Excerpt:

“How many times had I been told that Salinger would not call, would never call, that I would have no contact with him? More than I could count.

“And yet one morning, a Friday, at the beginning of April, I picked up the phone and heard someone shouting at me. ‘HELLO? HELLO?’ Then something incomprehensible. ‘HELLO? HELLO?’ More gibberish. Slowly, as in a dream, the gibberish resolved into language. ‘It’s Jerry,’ the caller was shouting. Oh my God, I thought. It’s him. I began, slightly, to quiver with fear, not because I was talking to—or being shouted at by—the actual J. D. Salinger, but because I so feared doing something wrong and incurring my boss’s wrath. My mind began to sift through all the Salinger-related instructions that had been imparted to me, but they had more to do with keeping others away from him, less to do with the man himself. There was no risk of my asking him to read my stories or gushing about The Catcher in the Rye. I still hadn’t read it. ‘WHO IS THIS?’ he asked, though it took me a few tries to understand. ‘It’s Joanna,’ I told him, nine or ten times, yelling at the top of my lungs by the final three. ‘I’m the new assistant.’

“‘Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,’ he said, finally, in something akin to a normal voice. ‘I’m calling to speak to your boss.’ I had assumed as much. Why had Pam put him through to me, rather than taking a message?”



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