I read a review of My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff, in Entertainment Weekly last month. Though I had a pile of other books to read, the review inspired me to reserve this one at the library. It came in the same time as two other books high on my ‘must read soon’ list, so I set it aside assuming I wouldn’t get to it. But I finally cracked open My Salinger Year two days ago, thinking I’d skim through it over the weekend since it is due back Tuesday and someone else has it reserved. Instead, the past two days have been a headlong dive into Rakoff’s book and Salinger himself.
In the late 1990’s, Joanna Rakoff, after leaving graduate school in her early-twenties and dreaming of becoming a published poet, gets hired as an assistant to the literary agent for J.D. Salinger. Though the events of this book transpired not so long ago, the times she describes feel like ancient history. Rakoff was hired during the last moments of the pre-digital age. She transcribed letters on a Selectric while listening to her boss’s voice on a Dictaphone with foot-pedal controls for playback and rewind. No emails. Just imagine!
One of her tasks was to respond to fan mail that came for Salinger. Though his last book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, had been published in 1963, the impact it, and Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and especially The Catcher in the Rye continued to have on readers was profound. Stacks of letters arrived from teenagers, college students, World War II veterans, and others. The letters were by turns raw, heart-breaking, deeply revealing, grateful, poignant, and very personal to the writers. Rakoff was told to reply with a form letter that Mr. Salinger had instructed the agency not to forward any mail to him, and then toss the letter into the trash. She didn’t exactly obey the instructions.
I, like so many others, have enjoyed his writing, and been fascinated by the reclusive J.D. Salinger. A few years before my first book was published, when I was filled with more doubt than confidence in my own writing, I pulled The Catcher in the Rye off my shelf and began not to read it again, but to transcribe it, word for word, on my computer. I wanted to know what it felt like to write a great book; a best seller.
For anyone who wants to be a writer, who wants to write better, who wants to learn a bit about the publishing world from the inside, or who wants to snuggle up with an engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking story, pick up My Salinger Year; a beautiful memoir about a young woman seeking her place in the world. It offers insights into J.D. Salinger, but those parts of the book are mostly a peg upon which to hang the real story: that of someone who loves to read; of someone who clings to her dream becoming a writer and doesn’t let go; and the magical power of books to inform and change our lives.