BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, June 2014
It was on a gray December day that 23-year-old Joanna Rakoff, nestled into her couch rereading Persuasion, received the call that she had gotten the job. Fresh out of grad school and without much of a game plan—aside from a deep-rooted desire to become a poet—Rakoff landed a position at one of the most storied literary agencies in New York City, one that represented such literary legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume.
In her absorbing new memoir, My Salinger Year, Rakoff (A Fortunate Age) recounts her time spent working as an assistant at what she simply refers to as “the Agency.” Even though it was the mid-1990s, the Agency office was a midcentury time capsule, where agents still smoked at their desks and there was nary a computer in sight, and a temple, where priceless first editions lined the endless shelves of books. After learning how to turn on her decades-old Selectric (that’s a typewriter, in case you didn’t know) and adjust the playback speed on her boss’ Dictaphone, Rakoff learned that one of her duties would be answering the fan mail of the Agency’s star client: the reclusive J.D. Salinger.
The letters to Salinger were voluminous, deeply personal and passionate about his works. It didn’t take long for Rakoff to ditch the form-letter response and start composing thoughtful, personalized replies—in secret, of course. The formidable, top-brass agent she worked for (referred to as “my boss”) is part Miranda Priestly, part Amanda Farrow, and deeply devoted to protecting Salinger’s privacy and legacy.
Naturally, there’s more to the book than just Rakoff’s job (and Salinger). There’s Don, her live-in socialist boyfriend with writerly ambitions of his own; there’s the striking contrast of making under $20k a year while living in a city and working in an industry that both revolve around vast amounts of wealth; there’s the universally relatable experience of being young and finding your own path in life.
Told with effortless, pitch-perfect prose, My Salinger Year is a deeply moving but unsentimental coming-into-your-own story that will keep readers thoroughly engrossed through the very last word.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Joanna Rakoff for this book.