Books on Tap met virtually to discuss The Receptionist: And Education at the New Yorker by Janet Groth. As a 19 year old, Groth used her connections to get a job as a receptionist at the New Yorker and stayed in the same position for twenty years, while pursuing a PhD after hours. We were excited to get a snapshot of New York City in the 1960s and 70s and a behind-the-scenes look at the famous names who wrote for the magazine.
That’s not exactly what Groth gives us. She does drop many famous (and formerly famous) names but offers neither insight nor gossip. We do get glimpses of the dysfunctional, nepotistic, “drawing account” workplace but Groth doesn’t really interrogate why the magazine was the way it was and the damage it did to both employees and as a myopic cultural gatekeeper. Instead, we felt she played up her looks as an ingenue and barely touched on her perseverance to work full time (with ample paid sabbaticals) and pursue a doctoral degree. Groth is certainly a product of her time in terms of the limitations she encounters in the Mad Men era and the ones she internalized from her family. However, she glides over these structural issues in favor of punishing herself for having an enjoyable sex life. We hear more about lunch “dates” that go nowhere than we do about the labor relations investigation into her salary history.
Pitched as a memoir, we expected the book to detail a pivotal span of Groth’s life with emotion. In describing her suicide attempt and recovery, however, she sticks to the facts and filters the memory through her sessions with her analysis. We compared it to the mental health crisis in Lab Girl by Hope Jahren which we recently discussed, which was also remote but written lyrically. Had she written an autobiography we may have learned more about the influence her childhood had on her, moving around the country as her parents built up and lost businesses as her father’s alcoholism grew more acute. Groth traces her disappointments in personal relationships to her identity as a people-pleasing “daddy’s girl,” a relationship that could use more space on the page. An autobiography could have also shown Groth’s growth from an insecure teenager to a published faculty member. Some of us were annoyed at Groth as a narrator because the events are related by the young Groth without the reflection the mature Groth could have brought to them writing from the remove of 30 years. Had she published her contemporary diaries we would have been more sympathetic.
Despite not being impressed by the book, we had a vigorous discussion which generated a list of similar books we rated higher. Check those out below!
Books on Tap will meet again on September 3 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). We’ll be reading Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover. JMRL owns this book in many formats. Please contact Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download.
Books and Authors Mentioned in the Meeting:
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Writing Appalachia: an Anthology edited by Katherine Ledford
September 3: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover
October 1: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
November 5: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
There is a good memoir by a former JMRL patron who was on the editorial staff at the New York Times – The Road to West 43rd Street by Nash K. Burger. Anyone who worked at Gordon Ave. Branch in the 80’s and 90’s will remember Nash.