Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan20 January 2008
I may be able to move back up to three review posts per week fairly soon, depending on how the backlog looks. Right now I have several reviews waiting to go, so it’ll be a matter of spreading them out and pacing them accordingly.
Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and mystery columnist for the Washington Post, knows the importance of examining and evaluating the books that she has read over the years. Books have been the centre of her life for a number of years now, so perhaps it is only natural that she would write a book that looks at her life as a reader and how certain books and genres have shaped her reading experience and her approach to life. And in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, Corrigan attempts to explore her longstanding and complex relationship to the books in her life, from her early childhood favourites to the books she comes back to time and again as a adult. As she says in her oft-quoted introduction: ‘It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others –- even my nearest and dearest -– there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.‘ It’s a sentiment that a number of readers share, certainly.
Quite possibly the best section in the book is her paean to hard-boiled detective novels, a genre that she believes has been overlooked and underappreciated by critics and academics. Corrigan delves into the world of noir, the stories of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and provides some interesting insights into how the traditional detective novel’s perspective on class and society makes it a quintessentially American work of fiction. She also has a few words to say about what she calls the female version of the ‘extreme-adventure story’ — where the gruelling experiences and hardships of a man climbing a mountain or facing death on a battlefield are mirrored by a those of a woman fighting to escape an abusive husband or devoting her energies to caring for an elderly relative on her own. (I’m not quite sure that I agree with all of her thoughts on this subject, but I’m still attempting to figure out where my reservations come from.)
That said, it should be noted that Corrigan’s attempt to describe her passion for books and illustrate the influence of literature on her everyday life becomes increasingly strained the farther away she goes from the books. As the distance from the literary analysis increases, the more her prose starts to drag and the less careful her word choices become. In one section, the term ‘WASP’ — with all its vaguely perjorative connotations and its feel of inverted snobbery — shows up four or five times in about as many pages as Corrigan talks about her Irish-Polish Catholic childhood and heritage. I ended up barely skimming Corrigan’s account of her travels to China to meet and bring back her adopted daughter, and the section in which she recalls her feelings of disenchantment and isolation during graduate school had me biting my lip in exasperation by the end of it. I won’t go quite as far as Corrigan herself does by summing up her book with her suggestion for a one-word negative review if Leave Me Along, I’m Reading — ‘Gladly’ — but I do think that some book-centric memoirs such as Corrigan’s have a tendency to blur the line between the books and the memoirs a little too much for my liking at times.