In this week’s Recommended Reads post, Prof. JoAnne Ruvoli recommends My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff.
Come for the Salinger, stay for the squalor
When pre-law English majors graduate, their families often give them Scott Turow’s One L as a gift and a preview of their future life in law school. English Education majors might receive one of the numerous memoirs about the first year of teaching in secondary schools such as Lou Ann Johnson’s The Girls in the Back of the Class, Samuel Freedman’s Small Victories, or Gregory Michie’s Holler if You Hear Me.
Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is a book for the rest of us who graduate with English degrees and seek meaningful work among books and literature. Set in the year 1996, Rakoff details the twelve months after she finishes her degree and moves to New York City to find fame and fortune as a writer. She lands a job at a literary agency, as a clerk who is tasked with answering the mail that arrives for The Agency’s biggest client—J.D. Salinger. It is an extremely low paying job, but somehow glamorous, except that it is the 1990s and the office does not have a computer. Those form letters that she sends in reply to the enthusiastic readers of Catcher in the Rye have to be typed. On a typewriter. If you have forgotten what the world was like before computers and email correspondence or if you wax nostalgic for the hum of the IBM Selectric, Rakoff’s memoir time travels to the era when the world was transitioning from analog to digital, from cream-colored stationary to pixels on a screen. The Agency operates as it has always operated—with typewriters, Dictaphones, and expensive letterhead. Rakoff’s desk sits in the dark, paneled office, lit only with table lamps, and each day she stares at the shelves lined with first editions of books—some of which are worth more than double Rakoff’s salary. The names on those books sitting just across from her are synonymous with American literature.
In Rakoff’s memoir, she claims that prior to starting at The Agency, she had not read any of Salinger’s books, although like most who have majored in English, she had an opinion about the writer and the books. By the end of the memoir, she has read all of the books and developed a unique relationship with Salinger’s other readers who wrote the letters to him that she slices open each day.
Whether or not you enjoy the stories about Salinger or his fiction, Rakoff’s descriptions of being young, ambitious, and broke are what drive this memoir and will speak to the idealistic English majors who want to make their livings through writing and reading books. In the prologue opening, she writes:
“There were hundreds of us, thousands of us, carefully dressing in the gray morning light of Brooklyn, Queens, the Lower East Side, leaving our apartments weighed down by tote bags heavy with manuscripts, which we read as we stood in line at the Polish bakery, the Greek deli, the corner diner, waiting to order our coffee, light and sweet, and our Danish to take on the train, where we would hope for a seat so that we might read some more before we arrived at our offices in midtown, Soho, Union Square” (3).
The Romantic notions of being a writer seldom hold up under the weight of the quotidian repetitive tasks that get in the way of actually writing. The train platforms are colder and the manuscripts heavier on an empty stomach. Throughout My Salinger Year, Rakoff provides an overview of the book industry in her daily work for The Agent who negotiates between the writers and the publishers. She attends readings and promotional events, combs through the slush pile, and even places a manuscript for publication. When a new edition of Salinger’s “Hapworth” novella becomes a possibility, she assists in every aspect of production because The Agency and Salinger have final approval over every detail. In lieu of a living wage, she is given an apprenticeship in elite literary publishing. She feels pity for her poet friends who have sold out for jobs at textbook publishers and for “spacious” apartments in New Jersey, but also she is miserable. She lives with an arrogant novelist boyfriend in a cold-water, $540-a-month, unheated studio in Brooklyn. Her salary is $1,000 a month, so she makes meals out of salad and coffee. When her father stops covering her monthly $473 student loan payment and her $11,000 in credit card debt from her undergraduate years, money is stretched even thinner.
Ultimately, as it perhaps must be, none of it—the boyfriend, the apartment, or the job—is sustainable for longer than the one year. The lessons resonate much, much longer however, and Rakoff’s career includes her own novels, essays, and poems. When Salinger passes away in January of 2010, Rakoff revisits Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and realizes her sympathies have shifted from Franny to Bess, but her affinity for Salinger remains: “At twenty-four, I’d thought, I want to write like that. At thirty-seven, I still wanted to write like that, but I had a better understanding of why, a hope that someday that ‘why’ would become a ‘how’” (243). Whatever the future holds for new J.D. Salinger books, Rakoff captures a snapshot of Salinger within her compelling memoir of the past, My Salinger Year.
Rakoff, Joanna. My Salinger Year. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.