Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

Maureen Corrigan’s book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading isn’t the best reading memoir I’ve ever read (I’m not sure what is, now that I think about it; if this turns out to be my favorite one, there’s a little room for improvement), but it has interesting and entertaining parts. It also makes me think that reading memoirs are fun to the extent that the reader shares a taste in books with the writer, at least to some degree. The parts I liked best are the parts about books I’m familiar with; the sections I rushed through are those where I had no connection to the books under discussion at all.

The premise of the book is that reading has made Corrigan’s life what it is, an interesting and appealing idea that Corrigan returns to again and again. Books kept her company as a child, they took her out of her Irish Catholic neighborhood and landed her in Philadelphia to study literature as a grad student, they led her out of the scholarly world into the world of book reviewing, and they shaped her experience of adopting her daughter. She now teaches and reviews books for NPR’s show “Fresh Air.” I’ve listened to a number of her radio reviews, so it was interesting to learn a little more about the person behind the voice.

The book is divided into four chapters interspersed with short, unlabeled meditations on books. The chapters take up such subjects as “women’s extreme adventure stories,” detective fiction, portrayals of single women, and pre-Vatican II Catholic martyr stories. The women’s extreme adventure idea is that there is a whole tradition of stories about women who spend their lives waiting — for men, for relief, for salvation, for recognition, for children — and struggling at home with, perhaps, abusive men or babies or loneliness. Instead of getting to go out and have adventures at sea or in the workplace, they spend their time enduring at home. Books by novelists such as the Brontës and Barbara Pym argue implicitly that the lives of women who wait deserve recognition as adventurous and valiant.

The chapter on crime fiction argues for the literary merit of the genre and claims that it is for the most part the only novel form that portrays work directly. Other novels take up work as a theme or describe work in brief sections, but crime novels dig deep into the working lives of detectives, showing in detail what it is they do on the job. She argues that part of the appeal of detectives is that their work is so satisfying — it allows them to use both their bodies and their brains, and it gives them an unusual degree of freedom and independence. Corrigan complains about those who dismiss crime fiction as mere “genre fiction” and believes that crime novels are capable of incisive social analysis.

I found these arguments interesting, and they were among the highlights of the book. The chapter on Catholic martyr tales was the book’s weak point, however. It seemed like too specialized a subject to appeal to most readers. The subject comes out of Corrigan’s Catholic education, a part of which was reading uplifting books about virtuous Catholics whose lives were full of sacrifice and self-abnegation. The self-abnegation, however, sits rather uneasily with the books they wrote and published detailing their heroics. The cultural argument Corrigan makes here is interesting, but the books she discusses are obscure and not ones I (and I’d guess most readers) would want to pursue.

That last chapter aside, however, I enjoyed the way Corrigan combines discussions of books with stories from her life; she brings the two together in a way that feels natural and seamless. I would have liked the book more if my reading taste overlapped with hers to a greater extent, but still, there is much that’s worth while here. And, as I said in an earlier post, the title is perfect for sending a message, if “leave me alone, I’m reading” is the message you want to send.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

14 responses to “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

  1. adevotedreader

    Like yourself, I found the Catholic chapter much less interesting than the others but enjoyed the book overall. It was good to read such a personal account of reading.

  2. I really enjoyed the book when I read it, and didn’t mind the Catholic martyrs because they were so far outside my reading experience – I was interested to read about something that had no bearing on my life and was never likely to! But I do recall enjoying the sections on women’s writing and crime fiction more.

  3. I enjoyed the book when I read it, but like you found it not to be the best reading memoir I’ve read. I think along with having a similar taste in books, or at least a knowledge of the books being mentioned, the writer’s voice and personality need to be appealing too. Corrigan has a good voice but there was something not quite there that I can’t put my finger on.

  4. Ann

    I haven’t come across this and must look it out asap, but what you say about the relationship between your own interests and what she is writing about reminded me of a book by Bernard Levin called ‘Enthusiasms’. The same thing was true for me with that. If I shared Levin’s enthusiasm then I was engrossed, if I didn’t (Wagner, for example) then I couldn’t get caught up at all.

  5. I’ve had this book for ages to read and really must get to it. It sounds similar to another book I read (can’t quite recall the title as I gave it away), but it had a similar set up (this one sounds better though) and I found the chapters that I had similar reading tastes far more engrossing. She talked about the books she read in a year and I totally skipped the business and sports books–not my thing. By the way I just realized that Case Histories Is the book I read by Atkinson–the covers are so different. It’s really scary how easily I forget plots–especially considering the discussion was so interesting!

  6. I’ve listened to some of Corrigan’s reviews on NPR as well. It used to come on the radio on Saturday morning as I was driving around doing errands. I really can’t remember much about those reviews, however. This sounds interesting though. I love the title. Wish I had thought of it first!

  7. I was so excited when I received this book a couple of years ago but couldn’t get into it at all. I almost felt bad because here I am a reader and can’t relate to another reader? I know that sounds silly but I was just so sure I was going to like it. Perhaps I’ll give it another go one day or maybe I’ll wait for another reader’s memoir which might appeal more to me :)

  8. My partner is a huge Terry Gross fan, so we listen to Fresh Air a lot, and I have to admit that we both find Maureen Corrigan’s style of speech to be really weird and off-putting. It’s kind of a running joke/pet peeve for us. I also tend to disagree with her taste in books – not all the time, but much of it. In fact, we just had this exchange about your post:

    Me: How does Terry Gross spell her name: with an “i” or a “y”?
    David: With a “y.” Why do you ask?
    Me: Because Dorothy just reviewed Maureen Corrigan’s new book, and I’m writing a—
    David: OH GOD, Maureen Corrigan wrote a BOOK? [At this point he began to ad-lib an imitation of Corrigan doing an interview about the book, which morphed into an imitation of their self-satisfied "critic-at-large" John Powers reviewing Corrigan.]

    So, she is obviously a contentious figure in our house. HOWEVER, I quite like the idea of a person’s reading making them who they are, and that point about detective fiction being the only genre to valorize/explore work is pretty fascinating. Maybe I would find Corrigan less annoying in printed form? Anyway, thanks for the review.

  9. I always enjoy reading about the books that have inspired people or acted as manuals on their life’s journey. But it’s true that I enjoy them more if I’ve read the books, and/or agree with the author’s views of them. If anyone discusses Moby Dick, for example, I immediately begin to tune out…

  10. Appreciate your point about overlapping reading tastes and how that increases enjoyment of a reading memoir. The recent Howard’s End Is On the Landing by Susan Hill prompted that same reaction in many readers. People either seemed to love it or hate it. And those venomous attacks by the Jane-ites upon the little-Austen-appreciating Hill? Eeek!

  11. Adevotedreader — yes, there really is a lot of good stuff in the book, and I enjoyed most of it. She was writing about the books that shaped her, after all, and those Catholic martyr books were definitely significant!

    Litlove — well, yes, I did learn something about Catholic martyrs — it is good to read about books very far outside my personal experience! I lent my mother the book after I finished it, and I really wonder what she will think…

    Stefanie — I remember you saying you didn’t really love this book. I absolutely agree about voice — it’s SO important. I liked her voice okay, but I agree with you that there’s something that kept me from really falling in love with it. I think I never came to trust her judgment as a reader fully, so I stayed distanced from the ideas.

    Ann — now reading a book about someone’s interest in Wagner doesn’t sound all that great, I must say … I’m curious to hear what you think if you do find this book. I think you might find her ideas about crime fiction interesting, in one way or another.

    Danielle — I’m really bad about forgetting plots too; in fact, I’m worst about forgetting the endings of books. They just don’t stick in my head! I wouldn’t want to read about sports and business books either. I hope you like this one when you get there — I’ll be interested to hear your response.

    Grad — I find I often don’t recognize the books Corrigan is talking about — which is okay because I can learn about new books, but when a reviewer’s books are always unfamiliar, that starts to become a problem. Yes, it IS a great title!

    Iliana — I can understand not getting into this book; I did find things to like it in, but it didn’t bowl me over or anything, and I always books about books do bowl me over :)

    Emily — oh, how funny! I like Fresh Air too (although I have a friend who hates Terry Gross’s style just like you and your partner can’t stand Corrigan’s) and have heard Corrigan’s reviews now and then, which I have never really loved. I listened to her end of the year wrap-up for 2009 and found her style to be pretty odd. I see how she would get annoying if you heard her a lot! I’m very curious to hear how you would like Corrigan in book form. She does seem like a very interesting person; I just can’t quite agree with her on books.

    Debby — hmmm, I wonder if Hobgoblin has ever said much about Moby Dick :) Yes, it’s really hard to hear a lot of book talk from someone who has different tastes than your own, especially if they are so different there’s little overlap.

    Frances — I have this feeling I might not like the Hill book very much … I mean, not liking Austen? Come on!! I’m still tempted to take a look at the book though, just to see for sure. I would be a good test case after the Corrigan book.

  12. This book has been on my list for a long while, now, and you’ve reignited my interest in it. I always love reading about reading, and readers–there’s always a comfort in that kind of connection. I’ll be picking this up soon!

  13. Gentle Reader — I also like reading about reading; it’s a great way to learn about other books and also to see how other people deal with all the things readers deal with — how to choose what to read, how fast to read, how to write about books, etc.

  14. Nan

    I just read the best quote in Real Simple magazine:

    My idea of perfect bedtime reading is Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, a comic novel about two sisters in an English village in the 1930s. For the ideal Pym experience, you should be wearing flannel pj’s and have a cup of tea.
    Maureen Corrigan
    Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

    I sure can identify with that choice! I haven’t read the book, and generally don’t read these sorts of books. When I do, I approach them much as you wrote. If I don’t care about the books the author is talking about, I skim over those parts. I just the other day read Eva’s (A Striped Armchair) review of the Susan Hill book about books, which I think has the best cover and title ever – Howards End on the Landing. It showed me how very personal our reading tastes are, and that very rarely is anyone talked into a book by someone else! Anyhow, I want to borrow this one from the library, if only for the Pym section.

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