Sunday, March 04, 2007

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading

I sometimes read while waiting in line amongst strangers for my lunch order to be ready. And on more than one occasion, one of those strangers has asked me what I was reading. Sometimes I find that to be a bit irritating because of the way that it interrupts my whole train of thought, so I kept waiting for someone to pop that question while I was reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading so that I could close the book and show them the cover just to see what kind of reaction I would get. No such luck, but that was not the only disappointment I had with the book.

I bought the book based almost entirely on that great title because it reminded me of a tee shirt that my wife gave me years ago that had the Archie Goodwin quote, "Go to hell, I'm reading," on the front. Maureen Corrigan has been the NPR Fresh Air book critic for almost twenty years and she writes a mystery column for the Washington Post, so I expected to relate easily to what she had to say about her love of reading and how it affected her life. It didn't quite work out that way, and maybe that's my fault for not reading more of her introduction before heading for the cash register to pay for the book. But I stopped reading the introduction after this first paragraph: "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." How could any avid book reader resist that?

Unfortunately, the book turned out to be a mixture of dry literary criticism and memoir that never seemed to mesh into a whole. Every time the book started to flow, it seemed to be interrupted by pages and pages of thesis-like book criticism or some rather judgmental account of a part of Corrigan's past. I found myself bored much of the time with what read to me as her feminist and ultra-liberal agenda but there were enough gems in the book to keep me reading to the end and it's those that I'll mention here. These are several of the interesting quotes that I marked as I read the book:
"Despite the proliferation of mega-bookstores and neighborhood reading groups, most Americans are indifferent to the lure of literature: in fact, according to a Wall Street Journal article of a few years ago, some 59 percent of Americans don't own a single book."

"I think consciously or not, what we readers do each time we open a book is to set off on a search for authenticity. We want to get closer to the heart of things, and sometimes even a few good sentences contained in an otherwise unexceptional book can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or, sometimes, profound epiphanies."

"I learned, firsthand, about the void that all devoted readers dread-the void that yawns just past the last page of whatever good book we're currently reading."

"A forgettable book disappoints or merely meets our conscious expectations; unforgettable books take us to places we didn't even suspect existed, places we may not even have wanted to go."

"For all readers, male and female, there is a discrepancy between the possibilities offered by the world of the imagination and the possibilities offered by real life. That's one of the reasons we read fiction: to fantasize about what might be."

"We read literature for a lot of reasons, but two of the most compelling ones are to get out of ourselves and our own life stories find ourselves by understanding our own life stories more clearly in the context of others'."

"...I also think the comfort books offer is qualified. All those voices, all those thoughts, all those reminders of how much there is to read and how little time there is to read it. Mentally and physically, books can be oppressive, even hazardous."

"...Books just don't register with this crowd. They think I lack common sense; I think they lack a part of their soul."

"Book lovers always have to touch books."
There is also an interesting section at the end of the book in which Corrigan lists some of her favorite books. For instance, this list of books that she "never gets tired of rereading":
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen
Shining Through by Susan Isaacs
David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hon Kingston
So, despite my general disappointment in the book and the somewhat tedious style in which it is written, I found it to be worth the effort. Since it is written from such a feminist point-of-view, perhaps female readers would find it to be a much better book than the one that I read. But for myself, I'm going to use Corrigan's own words to say that "a forgettable book disappoints or merely meets our conscious expectations." By that definition, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading is "a forgettable book."

Rated at: 3.0


  1. At a used book sale the other day, my wife picked up a copy of "How To Lose Friends and Alienate People" by Toby Young. The title reminds me of this book somehow. A little too witty for its own good. Could any book measure up? I haven't started it yet, but my skepticism has been raised thanks to your experience with this one.

  2. John, this one taught me what everyone always says about "judging a book by its cover." Maybe I just got my hopes up to high when I first grabbed're right it looked too perfect at first glance, something that's hard for any book to live up to.

  3. Sam - thanks for sharing your comments. I bought a copy of this one too, primarily based on the title :) but have been hearing mixed reviews around the blogosphere. Sounds like most of us had high hopes for it and found ourselves disappointed. To be fair, I haven't read it yet so I can't comment personally, but I will be sure to share my thoughts once I have had a chance to sit down with it.

  4. Let me know what you think about it, Kirsten. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who was a bit negative about the book so far. I guess this just proves how really important a title and cover shot can be when it comes to selling a book, doesn't it?

  5. Diddo to what Kirsten said: I bought this book a few months ago, based on the title and based on that same sentence you read in the preface. Could it be that Mrs. Corrigan knew what she was doing when she included that sentence? To hook avid readers like ourselves, who would find even the title irresistable? In any case, I took it home, read the rest of the preface, which states near the end that the book will be feminist-intense, and thought, "Well, s%#, this doesn't sound like what I bargained for." Disappointed, I put it back on the shelf and haven't returned to it since. I will though, just to finish it out, one of these days.

  6. I think you're right. She knew exactly what she was doing and what kind of trap she was setting for us, especially male readers. Like you, if I had noticed that the book was going to be "feminist-intense," I couldn't have run from it fast enough. But it was a long preface and I didn't read that far either.

    Live and learn is the message, I suppose.