Christopher Bonanos of New York Magazine reports on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in "The Book Reader."
In the mid-1960s, J.D. Salinger, one of the best-loved writers in America, cut himself off from public life and stopped publishing any new work. In 1995, Joanna Rakoff, not yet an acclaimed novelist herself, took a job, at the age of 23, as an assistant Salinger's agent, and the time she spent there is the subject of her memoir, "My Salinger Year."
It was, pretty nearly, the last days of publishing's clubby old culture, where people took long heavy-drinking lunches and chain-smoked at their desks. The agency where she worked—she never names it, but it was Harold Ober—had recently begun edging into the modern world, getting its first photocopier and fax machine. Rakoff, though, spent most of her time typing her boss's recorded dictation on an IBM Selectric. She also had to respond to hundreds of requests for Salinger, turning down speaking engagements and sending form letters to fans.
As the agency begins to face the modern world, losing clients and, reluctantly, getting its first email access, Rakoff herself begins to move into adulthood. Some of her friends change, become distant; she gets a little more sophisticated about business, publishing, her lousy boyfriend, the world in general. And hovering behind it all is Salinger himself: he makes eccentric requests, his phone calls come in full of shouting and repetition, because he doesn't hear well, and the careful management of his fans. Plus, eventually, the moment you're hoping for, when he actually turns up in the office.
It's a satisfying and beautifully written book for anyone who cares about books and how they're made. And I'll also say this: If you are about Joanna Rakoff's age, and you too arrived in New York in the years before e-mail, looking for a publishing job, a lot of what you will read here is very, very familiar. She gets the texture right, and, as Holden Caulfield might say, there's nothing phony about it.