Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 201 pages


For the past 16 years, Maureen Corrigan has reviewed books for NPR's Fresh Air. Now she talks about the books and authors that have influenced her life, from the female adventure novels of Charlotte Brontë and Anna Quindlen, to the gumshoe-detective novel, the martyr narratives of her Catholic girlhood. Corrigan assembles a rich literary feast, delighting readers and fans of the Brontës, P.D. James, Kingsley Amis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Louisa May Alcott, Philip Roth, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more. As Corrigan explores the unpredictable magic of reading and how books have helped her to understand her life, we experience with her the growing pains in school as books drew her simultaneously closer to and farther away from her parents, the mixed messages of Catholicism, and the journey from working-class Queens to the Ivy League, and, finally, the complications and satisfactions of marriage and motherhood. Corrigan reflects upon how our lives are both enriched and confused by the stories we love -- and how the books we invite into our lives help us to become the people we are.


From Publishers Weekly: Corrigan, the book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air and mystery columnist for the Washington Post... , is obsessed with reading books. Her compulsion is a bit far reaching, however: she offers books as the reason why she delayed getting married and why she adopted her daughter in China. She intersperses lengthy descriptions and analyses of her favorite books, like Jane Eyre, Lucky Jim, and Karen (Marie Killilea's memoir of her daughter), with stories from her own life. At times, the book reads like a feminist diatribe against the injustices female authors (and graduate students) have endured and the stereotypical portrayal of female characters. In its favor, the book allows readers to re-experience some perennial favorites, such as Pride and Prejudice and The Maltese Falcon. Corrigan does speak to the ability of books to provide escape and solace, and for the creation of characters we can relate to, but these few gems are buried deep in text so thick and analytical that the reader is often left gasping for air.


Born in 1955 in Long Island City, New York, Ms. Corrigan grew up in Queens, close to the 59th Street Bridge. "It was a great place to grow up," said Ms. Corrigan. "because I had the skyline of Manhattan spread out before me. Basically, I lived there throughout my childhood and young adulthood until I went off to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania."


A plethora of books similar to that by Ms. Corrigan have been published in the past five years -- books that celebrate books their authors have read. I asked Ms. Corrigan if she would explain the focus of her book. She laughed. "Your question makes me think of that anecdote I tell in this book's introduction about one of the awful academic job interviews I went on at Columbia University, and Steven Marcus asking me if I had 'any methodology in my dissertation.'

"Yes, the methodology for my book was me finally sitting down a year after I had the contract from Random House. In that year I'd become a mother, so hence the delay. I was overwhelmed.

"One thing that was freeing for me, not to sound too therapeutic about this, but one thing that got me going was to think about 'What if I could write a book just about books that, for some reason or other, I loved, or liked, or that had stayed in my mind?'

"Reviewing books as I have for 16 years for Fresh Air and teaching for 16 years at Georgetown, a certain amount of the literature I deal with is out of obligation. In this book I felt that burden was lifted. I don't have to talk about 'x, y, and z' if I don't want to. I can talk about Susan Isaacs and not be apologetic about liking Susan Isaacs. I don't have to prove that I'm smart, that awful lingering burden that I think anybody who's been to grad school still is plagued by. So that was one of the things. And another was a focus on women. That focus was a surprise to me. Because in grad school, my area of interest had been the great Victorian sages. Those were the people I read, and even in teaching, most of the books that I teach are books written by men. It surprised me that so much of what I was talking about was literature that either was written by women or that had something to say to women.

"The hard-boiled detective fiction classics I loved, Chandler and Hammett and all those tough guys. But what also excites me about those stories is the vision of work that I talk about, that idea that you're calling your own shots, you're autonomous, you've got a sense of mission in the world. I love to think about those utopian work novels. I think that that's one of its attractions that the genre holds.

"What I began to notice too is the female extreme adventure story. That carried through in terms of a theme throughout the book -- that there's this body of literature that preaches a stiff upper lip, whether it's the Catholic martyr stories, the hard-boiled detective stories, or the female extreme adventure stories. For whatever reason, probably a lot to do with my background, I seem to gravitate toward stories of this kind.

"I'm not saying that they're all of equal value. I'm not in that school of critics or theorists. But we've got these tales, whether it's Jane Eyre or a novel by Sue Grafton, that's giving us a female spin on a story about endurance and danger, whether it's psychological danger or physical danger. These stories are telling us something about women's lives that we don't usually recognize."

"You also seem to read with an eye toward the theological questions within a novel."

"Maybe that's the meshing in my life of the Catholic background with the immersion in and love of literature -- that idea that there was a Big Plan, that someone is watching you and paying attention to you.

"As I write in the book, I think, for the most part, all this reading in my life has been glorious and life-expanding activity, but it also reinforces a passivity, an almost mystical passivity that I have. When you read enough stories in which the hero or heroine intervenes at the 11th hour to save someone from a dreadful life, you start to believe that surely must be going to happen to you at some point.

"So, I think one thing that distinguishes my book from some of the other books about reading is that I acknowledge that reading is not a risk-free activity: it changes your life. It's not always a change you welcome. It separates you, in my case, from the people I grew up with. And sometimes it gives you screwy ideas. For me, certainly in my 20s, the ideas about love and romance that I had were shaped by great novels that I read and weren't necessarily helpful. I was still passive and trapped in that 19th-century romantic heroine mode."

We talked about Ms. Corrigan's Fresh Air job. "The great thing about Fresh Air is that I always feel I'm talking to an audience of educated non-specialists who are probably going to be interested in what I say, even if I'm not giving a book a rave. There aren't that many outlets that I can think of, especially these days, where I can talk for four minutes and say, 'It's not the book you want it to be.'"

"What attracted me to your book was the title, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."

"That's a variance of all the things I would say to my mother, who's not a reader. She's a wonderful mother, and she always was, but does not get it, why people read. She really would come up to me and feel my head for bumps and claim that I was going to get bumps on my skull from reading too much. Can you imagine these days where all we hear about is how parents should encourage their children and this middle-class worry about kids not reading enough?"

"Books often spoil a reader for people."

"And," laughed Ms. Corrigan, "it can also spoil you for the books' authors. Sometimes I've met authors who I've adored and I think, 'I'd much rather read them than meet them.' Their 'best self' is in the book. And maybe it's also the venue in which I'm meeting them; usually it's some professional thing, and you don't really get to know people that way. But, oftentimes I'd just rather meet them on the page.

"I think of that Holden Caulfield fantasy where he always wants when he reads a good book to call up the author and have a drink with him. I don't really want to do that. I want to stay with the book. I don't particularly want to meet the author, although sometimes there have been lovely experiences with authors. But I kind of do feel like sometimes people pour their best selves into the book, and that's what I want to stay with.

"I don't even like audio books that much. Random House has sold the rights for an audio version of the book, but I don't want somebody else's voice intervening or interpreting for me. I just want that voice in my head, as you say, that 'intimate experience.'"

"Why do you think people love memoirs so much now?"

"One reason is because the memoir, as it's always been, is considered a more accessible form. You don't know what you're getting when you open up a new novel. You don't know if you're going to be able to follow it. Is it going to be one of these postmodern things? What is it going to be?

"Memoir, you can reasonably expect, is going to follow the curve of someone's life. You can get that. I think there's also a contract with a memoir, implicit or explicit, that somebody is going to try to tell the truth. We like that as readers. We want authenticity. And there is that sense, certainly with the best memoirs, that you're sitting down with the author, and they're leaning over and they're saying, 'Let me tell you about this.' If the book is good enough you're just mesmerized.

"I teach a course on women's memoirs at Georgetown. My students are all hip these days, and they're all, like, 'Who cares if it's true or not? We know nothing's true.' And that's how they come into the course. And then we get to Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time, which I love.

"We read it, and I give them all this outside criticism, outside sources. I say, 'It seems as though she lied, here, here, and here.' They're devastated. So for all of that hipness, and the theoretical sophistication and postmodern assumption that nobody can tell the truth in memoir, I think we still expect that.

"So we try to play around with all those ideas. We start with Ben Franklin, because it's a course on American women's memoirs. And just kind of considering how he set the template for the American life, rising out of nowhere and becoming somebody. I love Franklin. He is interesting for the students because they're just plodding through his list of accomplishments. Then when you start complicating the book for them, it gets to be fun."

"What do you read in your off hours?"

"American history. I like to read about the American Revolution when I can squeeze it in.

"At the most recent BEA [Book Exposition of America], I was a last-minute substitute at the big luncheon where Michael Cunningham and Doris Kearns Goodwin were. It was such a thrill to meet Doris Kearns Goodwin. I've re-read her Eleanor and Franklin book, No Ordinary Time, at least twice.

"I said something to her like, 'I'd been to all these historical exhibitions as a child, and I tell my own daughter, who's now almost seven, "Franklin Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents, maybe our greatest."'

"So here my daughter is, seven years old, shouting to her friends and telling them about Roosevelt. The sense that she conveys in that book and that I grew up with, that some people are worthy of being looked up to, has dissipated over the years. Those terms, 'great men' or 'great women,' my students are very cynical about. But some people do deserve that title. I certainly grew up sensing that about Roosevelt and other figures in American history and I haven't lost that sense."

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