“‘Follow me,’ he said and I trailed him down the main hallway, past a row of dark offices. As on the day before I longed to linger over the books lining the walls. My eye caught some thrillingly familiar names, like Pearl Buck and Langston Hughes, and some intriguingly foreign ones, like Ngaio Marsh, and my stomach began to flutter in the way it had on childhood trips to our local library: so many books, each enticing in its own specific way, and all mine for the taking. ‘Wow,’ I said, almost involuntarily. James stopped and turned. “I know,” he said with a real smile. ‘I’ve been here six years and I still feel that way.’
—from My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Everywhere else in the world, it is 1996. But in “The Agency”, a pseudonym for New York’s “oldest and most storied” literary agency, at least a couple of decades seem to have gone by unnoticed. Books line wood-panelled walls, reading lamps spotlight desktops (the flat, wooden kind upon which you put stuff other than computers). The telex machine was retired for a fax, but “sat in the office for years just in case such technology should be called into service again.” Email is non-operational——at least not at the beginning of My Salinger Year. Telephones, dictaphones and Selectric typewriters are the means of correspondence between The Agency, its authors, their publishers and the outside world.
It may be the office that time forgot, but it is also the place where Joanna Rakoff, newly hired as an agent’s assistant, is given “the best first job a girl could have.”
Not that she knows it at the time. In the process of wading through stacks, bundles and boxes of correspondence to The Agency’s consummate author-client, J.D. Salinger, Rakoff types one form letter after another to advise senders that their mail will not be forwarded. That is how Salinger wants it, her boss insists, and under no circumstances, no, no, no, is Rakoff to forward “Jerry” this mail.
It’s no small feat. War veterans write to “Jerry.” So do grieving parents, and seemingly no end of adolescent Holden Caulfield-sound-alikes who claim to be surrounded by “phonies”. There are solicitations for speaking engagements, film deals, commencement addresses, publishing offers, strange declarations and galling demands. It falls to Rakoff to read them all.
In My Salinger Year, Rakoff gradually discovers how much more there is to books than the words between the covers. That the business of books is all about relationships. And that before every book, there is the manuscript, and, if an author is very fortunate, there are agents who believe in them enough to send them out in the world.