Last year, I made the decision to take a gap year, save my dollars, and hope for the best. As luck would have it, I got a full time job at a book store. Leaving high school to meet the big wide world by myself was disorientating to say the least, but one thing that made it easier was the books.
There are books you read once and forget. There are the books that you have to read. Then there are the books that stick with you over time, the ones that wrap around you and frame your own experiences with a new perspective.
There was this one really great perk to my job: the long, high, shelf out in the back room, full of unreleased review copies that were free for taking. One day I picked out a memoir from that shelf called My Salinger Year. It was an autobiography about a young intern, Joanna Rakoff, who found herself working for J.D Salinger’s literary agency in Brooklyn, New York. The story was a homage to the old world of publishing, as it never will be again. It was also a story about being young and unsure; about cutting free from your old life and wading through the fantastic and unfamiliar.
The review copy came with a letter from the editor at Bloomsbury press:
‘‘You always remember your first job – your first step into the world of publishing and bookselling. Reading this wonderful memoir…I was transported back to 1978.
I was 24, climbing five flights of stairs of a building in Wardour Street, sandwiched between a sex shop and a pinball arcade…The company was Virago Press. My job was Office Slave.
…we know that you are fully fledged in the world of books now, and that’s why we wanted to share this with you! ”
I nearly wrote back to the editor. I wanted to explain to them how I wasn’t quite there yet, how I was really more of a fledgling than fully fledged, and how youth, inexperience and my first proper job were not memories to me yet.
As I read, the protagonist wandered through a New York blanketed in December snow, immersed in sights and sounds. I wanted to tell the editor about my own walks to work through frost and fog; ordering coffee while it was still quiet; watching shopkeepers rush by and slip behind shutters. A suburban shopping centre in Melbourne is decidedly less romantic than Brooklyn, but in the memoir I sensed a certain rhythm which I could relate to working in a public place. That beat is the same one I felt every day when right on nine o’clock I heard the opening clatter of doors. Cue the music, heat, light, and noise. Customers came in and asked the same questions; I returned the same answers, following the script. At lunch I ordered sushi and the man at the counter asked “Soy sauce?”
Soy sauce. Soy sauce. He had been repeating those words for all the time he had been working there, and they were not even words to him, but a movement and a sound that his mouth made. They could have just as soon be part of his pulse, and in an odd way, I felt a part of it.
I read as the protagonist experienced hurt, betrayal, loneliness. Life was difficult, baffling, frustrating, and mundane. The world was wonderful, strange, beautiful and fascinating. She grew up, she got lost, and found her way back again. So did I.
There are some special books where I can’t help but to connect with the writer and the characters in a way that seems personal. But the truth is that there’s nothing particularly special about new-found adulthood, disillusionment, and acceptance. Ever since Salinger wrote the classic the Catcher in the Rye, “coming of age” has overgrown itself into a glorified literary sub-genre. While it’s a ubiquitous experience, I would argue that we make too much of it.
And yet still, I understand how we have this instinct to define our experiences with narrative, and this is why we connect so much to stories. We find consolation in the rhythm of beginning, arc, and resolve. There’s a certain solidarity in realising that we’re not alone; that we’re all just part of a cycle as we wander lost and unsure, until we find the ending for ourselves.
I’ve finally got myself to Canberra. Everything is different, but everything is the same. The world is still a little strange. I’m in the beginning of some things, and at the end of others, and books still help me along the way. I’m ready for whatever comes next, whenever it comes. After all, I’ll just be following the script.