This might sound strange, but after finishing the just-released memoir My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, I realized I’m guilty of incorrectly judging a book by its cover color. Although an advance copy had been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time now, I kept pushing it lower and lower in the pile for the simple reason that the predominantly brown cover didn’t appeal to me. I never even bothered to read the jacket copy, so I wasn’t even avoiding the premise or description. It was just that the cover made it seem like an—forgive me—overly masculine book.
It’s not the first time I initially passed on a brown cover that held treasure between the pages. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer was an almost completely brown cover, and oh did I resist reading that one, even though it was the talk of the publishing house I worked for at the time. It was Moehringer’s memoir of growing up fatherless in the local bar in Manhasset, New York. Instead of romanticizing a booze-filled past, this coming-of-age portrait has something for everyone, from father-son story to first love to adjusting to college to finding his way as a journalist. And all of it is recounted with the knack of someone who spent hours telling stories to a colorful cast of characters in a bar; the kind of person who could make you down his writing faster than a good drinker could chug a beer.
With that aside, what I’m intending to tell you about is My Salinger Year. I somehow overcame my aversion to the cover and stayed up far too late reading it two nights in a row. Enough random sources had been whispering in my ear and urging me to crack it open that I finally reached the point of feeling obligated. To be honest, I only noticed the cover included a girl in the window of the apartment after I’d finished reading the whole book. All I’d seen was brown brick.
I should have read the description because it soon became clear this was a book I had to read. It’s a memoir of Rakoff’s year working as an assistant to an established literary agent, right around the time that most offices were just starting to shift to using computers. This was exactly the era when I started my first internship in the editorial department at Simon & Schuster, and my god reading this book was like being there all over again. From feeling so poor that you had to be satisfied with coffee for lunch to yearning for 500 pages of assigned reading per night, the experience of being an assistant in the literary world of Manhattan comes completely to life. This is The Best of Everything in the 90s (I wrote about that 1958 glimpse at the young publishing assistants’ world here) and will easily captivate the same audience.
Although the title implies this book is about Salinger, it’s really a coming of age story about Joanna Rakoff. (If you’re looking for a book about Salinger, read this post instead). Her boss represents “Jerry,” as he’s reverently called around the office, and her interactions with Salinger as well as with his piles of fan mail could actually have been with any number of legendary authors. Even the anecdote about Judy Blume’s appearance in her office could have been about any big writer. What’s universal about Rakoff’s job is what appealed to fans of The Devil Wears Prada—a proximity to and yearning for artistic greatness that makes young and as-yet-unaccomplished 20-somethings particularly vulnerable.
While she deals with a lackluster relationship based on rebellion, Rakoff begins responding to Salinger’s fan mail. She soon abandons the agency’s recommended form letter and engages in the fans’ attempts to start a dialogue with the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye. But she’s never read a word of Salinger’s writing. Again, this just isn’t a book about him at all. What comes out is a portrait of a likeable and slightly lost young woman working on her own voice. She feels like the kind of person that anyone who reverently loves books will feel a kinship towards. As she transforms from wide-eyed and awestruck apprentice to a confident aspiring agent who sells her first story, her character nearly bursts off the page with authenticity.
The ending, which jumps forward in Rakoff’s life, has a strange and almost disjointed feeling to it. While it does tie in the significant role Salinger played in her life, there is a part of me that wishes we could have just left the barely-adult Rakoff trudging towards the subway with a bag full of manuscripts. But I suppose every young assistant must grow up eventually, including myself.
Like Rakoff, I’ve never read a word of Salinger except maybe part of Franny and Zooey in high school (but if so, I don’t remember it). So I was impressed with myself for getting up the morning after I finished My Salinger Year and pulling Catcher in the Rye off the shelf. I read the first two chapters last night and damn is it good. What took me so long? Well…I guess I wasn’t excited about the plain red-brown cover.
There’s a moral in this whole story. Something about not judging a book….well…you get the point.