Tuesday, June 10, 2014

J.D. Salinger on Line One

Okay, so I was preparing for sales conference in February and there was a book on the list called My Salinger Year that was a priority. "Priority"=everyone must read at least an excerpt. The thing is that I HATE reading excerpts of books. I am a book monogamist and if I start something, there's about a 95% chance that I will see the book through to the end. So I'm looking at this manuscript and I'm feeling a bit of reluctance because here's the thing: I don't really love J.D. Salinger. I started asking my colleagues. "Is it about Salinger?" "Do I have to like Salinger to like it?" "What if I think The Catcher in the Rye is stupid?*" Ultimately though, I know that it's my job to read books that I might not personally like. One of the great joys of my job, is the great discovery, and even more special is the book that turns out to be great when it defies my preconceived notions. Don't judge a book by its title, it turns out.

This is a Dictaphone.
It is not considered modern technology.
Joanna Rakoff's memoir My Salinger Year is simply a joyful, pleasurable, memorable reading experience. Fresh out of college and wanting to be a writer, Joanna takes a job as an assistant at a literary agency. For those not in the book business, pretty much if you want to get a publishing deal, you first have to find an agent. This agency is an old house of some repute, and Joanna is excited to dive into work. She's so excited, in fact, that her first day happens to be the day of a blizzard and she's the only person who shows up for work. It's an auspicious start. Also, though it's 1996, the office still uses typewriters and Dictaphones. I was in college in 1996 and I know for a fact that computers and email were common and the standard for communicating and word processing. And then there's the agency's most famous client, Jerry.
Joanna Smith Rakoff
No longer an agent's assistant.

Jerry, of course, is famous recluse J.D. Salinger, and 1996 happened to be a significant year for Salinger and his agent and his agent's assistant. Joanna answers the phone and transcribes notes and opens the many, many letters that arrive for Salinger from his fans. She is supposed to reply with a standard letter, but she's a writer and curious about the letter writers' stories and violates the form letter policy. Also, Jerry? He's hard of hearing and screams into the phone and never actually manages to call Joanna by her actual name. Joanna, too, hasn't actually read Salinger. Can you see the appeal of this book?

Rakoff writes a fun, interesting memoir that captures this one year in her life. I like her writing, and I like that the book doesn't try to do too much. It's the story of a newly independent woman making her way into the working world while trying to figure out her personal life and who she wants to be as an adult. These are Salinger-esque themes, and to some extent universal. She's not a phony. It's also a book about the publishing industry and what it's like to work behind the scenes with one of the biggest writers of the 20th Century. My Salinger Year takes the legend of J.D. Salinger and presents Jerry, the guy who calls in the talk about royalties; it's a humanizing book for both the author Salinger and the author Rakoff. This book is intelligent, wise, effervescent, a really good read. Thank goodness for assigned reading for compelling me to dive in.

*For the record, I did like Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I think I read The Catcher in the Rye too late; as a 27 year old, Holden Caulfield struck me as a whiny, spoiled, white guy with what's referred to these days as "first world problems" (a term I also hate).

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