Review: ‘My Salinger Year’ by Joanna Rakoff

People say you outgrow Salinger. That he’s a writer whose work speaks to the particular themes and frustrations of adolescence. That latter might be true. … But I encountered Salinger as a grown-up or rather, someone who, like Franny, was just sloughing off my childhood, my received ideas about how to live in the world. And, thus, with each passing year — each rereading — his stories, his characters, have changed and deepened. (246)

mysalingeryear_rakoff_book coverMost days, I’m happy where I’m at. I live in a pretty amazing city, I’ve got a job in my chosen field and I live with two cats. Then there are days when I wonder what would have happened if I had done something differently. Switched to being an English major that summer of 2011. Interned for the Prairie Schooner. Vied for more book publishing internships.

Like many avid readers and writers, I dream of working in the book publishing industry. I just haven’t taken the traditional route so far. I didn’t grow up on the East Coast, nor did I go to school out there — no connections means there was no way in hell I was moving out to NYC and cross my fingers that I’ll get hired somewhere. I didn’t have the guts. I figure I’ll work my way in there one day via magazine editing.

So as I was skimming through the Chicago Public Library’s biography and memoir section, “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff caught my eye. My literary dream flickered in the back of my mind. I immediately downloaded it to my Kindle, and snuggled under the blankets with Cosmo curled up next to me.

In “My Salinger Year,” Rakoff wonderfully crafts her year working at the Agency, which represented J.D. Salinger. Having just left graduate school and moved to New York to write poetry, 23-year-old Rakoff gets an underpaid job at the Agency in the mid-1990s. The Agency is woefully behind the technological times, as Rakoff uses a Dictaphone to type out her boss’ dictated letters on a Selectric typewriter. She also reads through fan letters that Salinger — or Jerry — will never read, and writes back, eventually abandoning the form letters she is supposed to send. After work, she returns home to Williamsburg to her no-heat apartment and socialist boyfriend.

There were times I had to pause and remind myself that it was a memoir, not a fiction book. I fell into Rakoff’s 1996 world of publishing, and I didn’t want to leave. I got lost in the world of New York and publishing, and found myself relating all too well with 23-year-old Rakoff. I became intrigued with J.D. Salinger once more, and made a mental note to read at least one of his books before this book challenge is over.

Two things stand out to me after I’ve finished this book. The first is just how much technology has affected the publishing industry. The office Raskoff works in didn’t have a single computer until about six months into her tenure — and even then, it was only one computer. At one point, when she is visiting her friend who is working elsewhere, the friend is complaining that the office is going paperless. Raskoff also mentions that the Agency doesn’t allow a clause for electronic publishing. It’s crazy to think that that was just 20 years ago.

The second is just how much one author can change a person’s life, direction. For Raskoff, it was Salinger, whose works she hadn’t read until well into her year working at the Agency. She conversed with Jerry many times over the phone and even briefly met him once. She saw how his writing had affected others across the world from reading and answering his fan mail day after day — and a few still stick with her.

Or maybe you, like me, found yourself sobbing with recognition, with relief, that there was someone else who had felt such exhaustion, such despair, such frustration with everything, everyone, including yourself, your inability to be properly nice to your well-intentioned father, or your inexplicable ability to shred the heart of the man who loves you most. Someone else who was trying to figure out how to live in this world. (197)

We all have that one author, don’t we?


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