After leaving graduate school to pursue her dream of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. Precariously balanced between poverty and glamour, she spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office—where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and agents doze after three-martini lunches—and then goes home to her threadbare Brooklyn apartment and her socialist boyfriend. Rakoff is tasked with processing Salinger’s voluminous fan mail, but as she reads the heart-wrenching letters from around the world, she becomes reluctant to send the agency’s form response and impulsively begins writing back. The results are both humorous and moving, as Rakoff, while acting as the great writer’s voice, begins to discover her own.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How many times had I been told that Salinger would not call, would never call, that I would have no contact with him? More than I could count.
And yet one morning, a Friday, at the beginning of April, I picked up the phone and heard someone shouting at me. “HELLO? HELLO?” Then something incomprehensible. “HELLO? HELLO?” More gibberish. Slowly, as in a dream, the gibberish resolved into language. “It’s Jerry,” the caller was shouting. Oh my God, I thought. It’s him. I began, slightly, to quiver with fear, not because I was talking to—or being shouted at by—the actual J. D. Salinger, but because I so feared doing something wrong and incurring my boss’s wrath. My mind began to sift through all the Salinger-related instructions that had been imparted to me, but they had more to do with keeping others away from him, less to do with the man himself. There was no risk of my asking him to read my stories or gushing about The Catcher in the Rye. I still hadn’t read it. “WHO IS THIS?” he asked, though it took me a few tries to understand. “It’s Joanna,” I told him, nine or ten times, yelling at the top of my lungs by the final three. “I’m the new assistant.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,” he said, finally, in something akin to a normal voice. “I’m calling to speak to your boss.” I had assumed as much. Why had Pam put him through to me, rather than taking a message? My boss was out for the day, it being Friday, her reading day.
I conveyed this to him, or hoped that I did. “I can call her at home and have her call you back today. Or she can give you a call when she gets in on Monday.”
“Monday is fine,” he said, his voice ratcheted down another notch. “Well, very nice to meet you, Suzanne. I hope we meet in person someday.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Have a great day.” This was not a phrase I ever used. Where had it come from?
“YOU, TOO!” Ah, the shouting.
I put the phone down and took a deep breath, as I’d learned to do in ballet. My entire body, I realized, was shaking. I stood up and stretched.
“Jerry?” asked Hugh, stepping out of his office with a mug of coffee.
“Yes!” I said. “Wow.”
“He’s deaf. His wife set up this special phone for him, with an amplified receiver, but he refuses to use it.” He sighed his trademark sigh. To be Hugh was to be let down by the world. “What did he want?”
“Just to talk to my boss.” I shrugged. “I offered to call her at home and have her call him back, but he said Monday was fine.”
Hugh wrinkled his face in thought. “Hmm, why don’t you call her anyway. I think she’d want to know.”
“Okay,” I said, thumbing through my Rolodex.
She wasn’t home and had no answering machine. She didn’t believe in them. Just as she didn’t believe in computers or voice mail, another newfangled invention not employed by the Agency. If you called during business hours, you reached Pam, the receptionist. If you called outside business hours, the phone just rang and rang, as it did at my boss’s apartment, twenty blocks north of the office. I tried again, every hour or so, until the end of the day, to no avail. It would have to be Monday.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s acclaimed memoir of literary New York in the late nineties.
1. In what ways does Joanna Rakoff’s position at the Agency seem typical of many young people’s first post-college jobs? Has it gotten harder or easier for young people to start a meaningful career since then?
2. How much did Rakoff’s experience at the Agency match what she had imagined ahead of time about the glamorous world of publishing? Was her disillusionment inevitable?
3. When the book begins, Rakoff has just left her college boyfriend, even though it’s clear she’s still in love with him. She says she doesn’t understand why she did this. Is there anything in her behavior or situation that might shed light on her motives?
4. Rakoff’s boyfriend, Don, is a rather unpleasant character. Why does she stay with him as long as she does? Is there something universal about her experience with Don?
5. Rakoff never names the firm for which she works—calling it “the Agency”—nor does she name her boss or her college boyfriend. Why do you think she made this choice? Does it matter that she’s concealed the names? Would the memoir have more impact if the names were revealed?
6. Midway through the book, Rakoff’s father presents her with a stack of bills, revealing that he had taken out student loans in her name without her knowledge, forging her signature on the applications. He tells her the payments are her responsibility now, even though he knows she doesn’t make enough to cover them. Was this a good way to encourage financial responsibility? Should she have protested her father’s actions more strongly?
7. Part of the book’s plot line revolves around Rakoff and her closest friend, Jenny, growing apart. Jenny has chosen a more conservative path in life; Rakoff, a more bohemian one. Is growing apart from one’s childhood friends a universal part of growing up?
8. When Rakoff is asked to read Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, she recalls the important role Blume’s children’s books had played in her life as a young book lover. By contrast, she had never read J. D. Salinger before. Do you think Blume has the same sort of significant place in many young women’s hearts as Salinger does for many young men?
9. The Agency is almost a character in the book itself. How would you describe its personality? How important are the particular quirks of the place and of her boss to Rakoff’s development during this year?
10. Rakoff’s memoir is set at the dawn of digital technology. How does her employer’s resistance to using computers and insistence on using outdated Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones contribute to the strangeness of Rakoff’s experience working there? How differently might this story have played out if it had occurred a decade later, when email and the internet were more inescapable?
11. A turning point in the story comes when Rakoff decides to disregard her boss’s instructions to send out a form letter on Salinger’s behalf, and begins answering fans’ letters instead. Was this courageous or recklessly irresponsible? Why do you think she did it? What effect does it have on her?
12. What do the letters that Rakoff writes to Salinger’s adoring fans show us about her? To what extent is she writing them for herself?
13. J. D. Salinger was famously reclusive. What did you know about him before reading this book, and did any of his cameo appearances in the book change your image of him?
14. What sort of influence does Rakoff’s boyfriend have on her during this period of her life? What relationship do his literary ambitions have to her own? To what extent is finding her voice connected with breaking away from him?
15. What does it mean to Rakoff when Salinger dies? After reading the memoir, how would you explain her decision to entitle it My Salinger Year?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This selection was for one of the book clubs I’m in, and not normally something I would choose to read. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and I’ve never read anything by Salinger. Gasp! Maybe one day…. The setting of the place she works at is stuck in the 1950’s, with the dictaphones and typewriters. At first I thought it was the 50’s, until I read that it was actually the mid 90’s. The Agency (and yes, that’s how Rakoff speaks of it), does not send Salinger any of the fan letters that he receives, and one of her jobs is to send a standard form letter. She starts to actually reply to some of the letters, letting them know Salinger can’t, but here’s her words of wisdom. There is not much about Salinger in this book, it’s about Joanna Rakoff, who comes from a well off family, and lives in New York trying her hand at becoming a published poet. While the clients at The Agency are being wined and dined, she’s living in an apartment that doesn’t have heat, in the winter, in New York. But she wants to live the dream so she continues to be with a man who she was fascinated by at first, but then slowly realizes he’s using her for the small amount of money she has. Rakoff loses the friends she had in college, and realizes the people she thought were her current friends, have many issues. Her parents stop paying her credit cards and student loans, so the lifestyle she led of going out for drinks and dinners, starts to decrease. Basically her life is like the millions of people who are on their own, don’t have parents to pay their way, and only find low paying jobs. She makes it work, like so many other people are forced to do everyday. But the big difference is she has her parents to fall back on, if she really needs to. By the end of the book, she’s talked to Salinger on the phone a bunch of times, and once in person. And she’s made contacts in The Agency, and is able to start getting some of her work published. This memoir was okay. Nothing super exciting happened, and I wonder if she hadn’t had some contact with Salinger, if this book would have even been published. Perhaps if you enjoy her poetry, and want to know a bit more about her, I would say go for it.