This story begins with an introduction by the fictional author, Buddy Glass. Buddy is the oldest living brother of Franny Glass and Zooey Glass. He is an author and teacher. He tells the reader that this story is a "prose home movie"--a home movie in writing. He says that Zooey believes the story to be a mystical tale while he, Buddy, thinks it is a love story. After this brief introduction, Buddy refers to himself in the third person.
It is mid-morning one Monday in November of 1955. Zooey is sitting in the bathtub, in the New York City apartment that he grew up in, reading a four-year-old letter from Buddy. In it, Buddy complains that their mother, Bessie, nags him to get rid of the phone that he keeps in a New York apartment and get a phone in his remote home at the college. Then, Buddy passes on some nagging from Bessie to Zooey, telling Zooey he should get a Ph.D. before pursuing acting seriously. Buddy then apologizes for, perhaps, along with their oldest brother Seymour, having taught Zooey and Franny too much about Buddhism and religion as young children. Buddy writes that he is afraid that Zooey knows too much about beauty to be an actor. No productions, he writes, are ever beautiful, and he is afraid that this lack of beauty will hurt Zooey. Buddy then reveals that he is writing the letter on the three-year anniversary of Seymour's suicide. All the Glass children highly regard their oldest brother, seeing him as a genius and a poet.
The letter continues with Buddy telling a story about having arrived for Seymour's funeral with the "wrong expression" on his face. A woman on the plane had been telling a grotesque story, and Buddy could not help but find the situation amusing. Seymour's widow was not pleased. Buddy returns to his original point: He wants to explain to Zooey why he and Seymour gave Franny and him such a rigorous education in spiritualism. Buddy writes that he and Seymour had decided that the best thing in life to pursue was not knowledge, but "no-knowledge." Instead of setting Franny and Zooey on a path of trying to learn everything, they hoped to explain, through their religious lessons, that knowledge was not the most important thing. Buddy ends by telling Zooey to do whatever he wants--act if he must--but give it his all.
Buddy's introduction, while it may seem unnecessary at first, brings up many important issues. First, because he is telling a story about two of his siblings whose lives he has had a major impact upon, he shows that he still considers himself to have some control of them. This introduction, therefore, plays with the idea of family. Buddy is bringing the close interactions of his siblings out into the public. This exposure is, of course, fictional, but it is important to recognize that Buddy does not actually reveal much about himself. Instead, he is going to tell the story of the results of his and Seymour's influence in the lives of Franny and Zooey. This story is an "unholy collaboration," just as everyone's lives are inevitably created and molded by their families and environments.
Spirituality becomes a very important theme in "Zooey." Buddy indicates here that he and Seymour were very interested in both Western and Eastern religion. The most crucial thing that they got from this interest was not pure devotion to one god, however. As Buddy says in his letter, it is the idea that "no-knowledge" is better than knowledge. One should not be in a continual quest for knowledge because then one becomes competitive for it and overly proud of it. Instead, one should just live in a state of pure, uncorrupted contentment. This existence would allow one to live without judgment of others and without developing an ego.