Of all the city/industry combinations pursued by young people with a dream, New York/publishing is one of my favorites. I myself considered it*, because reading eight or more hours a day sounds pretty much ideal. Though I obviously ended up going a different way, no trip to Manhattan is complete without a walk past Houghton Mifflin, Random House, and the other great publishing houses in Midtown. (Also, a cupcake. But that is neither here nor there.)
Joanna Rakoff, the author and main character of this thinly-veiled memoir, finds herself as an assistant at an unnamed agency in the mid-90s. The job of the agency is to represent authors in negotiations with publishers, lawyers, and fans. The job of the assistant is to take dictation, process fan letters, and type. A lot. On a Selectric, because the unnamed agency takes a pretty dim view of modern technology.
(As someone who actually did learn to use a dictation machine in college, I took great delight in Joanna’s confusion at the peddles. I got my comeuppance when she was trying to figure out how to turn on the Selectric, though. I been there, girl. I feel you.)
Though I’m tempted to compare this book to The Devil Wears Prada, the similarities really end after “workplace memoir set in NYC publishing.” Sure, there’s a boss, but she’s not overtly hostile a la Miranda Priestly. Joanna never has to run personal errands—it’s all business. And while the book does include a fair amount of drama with Joanna’s so-wrong-he’s-right-but-really-he’s-just-wrong-dump-him-already socialist boyfriend, the focus is really on her relationship with a different man: J.D. Salinger.
As you probably know, Salinger was the author of The Catcher in the Rye. And a giant recluse. unless you lived in Cornish, New Hampshire (and even then), you weren’t likely to hear from him. Thus Joanna’s job, as assistant to the agent who represents Salinger, is a (tenuous) conduit to one of our great modern authors.** Salinger is a catalyst for Joanna, both personally and professionally. It is in dealing with him, and his fan letters, and all the other trappings involved in client work, that she confirms what she wants to be (a poet), where (Brooklyn), and with whom (not socialist boyfriend).
I’m a sucker for a good bildungsroman, and J.D. Salinger isn’t a bad quasi-mentor. Not by a long shot.
* It came in third, after DC/government and Chicago/journalism. Podiumed!** Personal opinions of Salinger’s work aside, you can’t deny his impact on 20th century American literature. Me myself personally, read The Catcher in the Rye once and didn’t really care for it. File under things everyone but me loves, along with The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.