December 28, 2006

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan
Finished on 12/12/06
Rating: C- (2/10 Boring)

Publisher Blurb (inside jacket):

As book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air and contributing to many publications, Maureen Corrigan literally reads for a living. For as long as she can remember, books have been at the center of her life, a never-failing source of astonishment, hard truths, new horizons and welcome companionship. Now Corrigan has added a volume of her own to the shelf of classics, by writing about her life of reading with all the attention to complexity, wit, and intelligence that any good book – or life – deserves.

It’s been over two weeks since I finished this book. I’ve celebrated a birthday, traveled to Texas to see our youngest daughter graduate from college, baked cookies, shopped for/wrapped/shipped Christmas gifts, put up Christmas decorations, sent out Christmas cards, and celebrated Christmas with family and friends. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a little bit busy. Perhaps I was even a bit distracted while reading the book and that’s the reason for such a poor rating.

It’s no surprise that as a lover of books, I love to read about other book-lovers, reading groups and bookstores. I’ve read several works of nonfiction that fall into the bibliophile category: So Many Books, So Little Time (Sara Nelson), Ex Libris (Anne Fadiman), The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (Lewis Buzbee), and Book Lust (Nancy Pearl), as well as many fictional works that focus on the love of books and reading. More often than not, the author’s thoughts and reflections are very similar to my own and I find myself highlighting passages and quotes, nodding in agreement, softly murmuring, “Me, too.”

I’ve had Corrigan’s book (subtitled “Finding and Losing Myself in Books”) on my TBR list since first hearing about it last year. Bybee (of Naked Without Books!) saw it mentioned in one of my posts and was kind enough to send me her copy all the way from South Korea! Unfortunately, this book was pretty much a disappointment (although, you wouldn’t know it judging from all the post-it flags marking passages to quote in this review). The book is a bit scholarly, reminding me of the critical essays I read in college. Fresh Air’s executive producer, Danny Miller, wasn’t too sure about Corrigan when she sent him some book-review clips, saying, “No thanks. We think you’re too academic for the show.” Hmmm. That’s how I felt about her book! I don’t mind reading an analysis of a work of literature, but a little bit goes a long way, especially during the hectic weeks of December! I also feel Corrigan came across as a bit of a literary snob, talking down to her readers:

“These people – let’s call them the Bounderbys – see books only as commodities. (A refresher: Mr. Bounderby is the ‘eyes on the bottom line’ businessman whom Dickens lampoons in Hard Times. One advantage of a grad-school degree in English is that you can insult people more elegantly.)”

I have to confess that I even wound up skimming the second half of the book. I never skim and normally would’ve have quit after 50 pages or so, but I really wanted to give this one a chance, especially since a fellow blogger took the time to send it to me AND that it’s one I chose for my From the Stacks’ Challenge.

In spite of such a disappointing review, I do have some favorite passages:

“…I still feel an upsurge of curiosity every time I rip open another cardboard book box to look at the new title inside. There’s always a chance that this new novel or work of nonfiction will be a book I’ll love, a book that I’ll pass on to friends and rave about on Fresh Air; a book that changes the way I ‘read’ my own life. For the chance of finding such magic – as I do maybe ten times a year – I misspend hours of my life reading what turns out to be the wrong books: biographies promoting glib psychological keys to their subjects, or novels that go nowhere, or mysteries narrated by cats. No pain, no gain.”

“…I live an intensely bookish life during a resolutely nonliterary era. An absurdly small number of people in America care about what I or any other book critic has to say about the latest novel or work of nonfiction. 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. Not a cookbook or even the Bible. Just as I find that statistic incomprehensible, a lot of people consider what I do for a living fairly pointless, as the epigraph to this book demonstrates. All that reading and so little material reward.”

“Think of this book as analogous in method to those marvelous mongrel texts written by M.F.K. Fisher or Laurie Colwin that combine recipes and revelations about food with autobiographical digressions. Some people live to eat; others of us live to read. In both instances, the particular hunger and the life are absolutely intertwined.”

“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. Good writing is writing that’s on target; that captures, say, the smell of sizing on a just-sewn garment the way no other known grammatical scramble of words has before. (Ann Packer’s recent wonderful debut novel, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, did just that.) Those are, unfailingly, the sentences that we reviewers quote in our reviews because they leap out and offer those cherished ‘Aha!’ moments in reading. Little wonder that one of the most overused words in favorable reviews is the adjective luminous.”

In addition to sharing her thoughts about books and reviewing for Fresh Air, Corrigan includes several lengthy anecdotes about the adoption of her daughter from China. I’m not sure the juxtoposition of these two subjects works well together in a single book and might be better suited as separate memoirs. Having just visited Amazon for further information, I discovered this blurb from Publisher’s Weekly. Nice to know I’m not alone in my opinion of this book!

From Publishers Weekly:

Corrigan, the book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air and mystery columnist for the Washington Post, makes her own book debut with an often longwinded and tedious account of how books have shaped her life. It's clear from every page that Corrigan 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 analysis 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 reexperience 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.


  1. I agree with you about the adopting her daughter from China sections, that they didn't quite fit in the book.

  2. Interesting to read your thoughts on this one. It's on my shelf but I haven't read it yet. Disappointing to know it has a long-winded tendency but I can always skim, which I'm not above doing! In younger years I would have thought that cheating, but no more. It's essential to me now, frankly!

  3. This is one of those books that's been beckoning me from Mt. TBR. I'm not sure why it hasn't made it to the reading table by my chair, but I'll trust your review and no longer feel compelled to fit it in. Too bad...the cover is very inviting and the blurbs (especially Nancy Pearl's) make it seem tailor-made for a reading enthusiast. At some point, I must have thumbed through the book, because I found a post-it on p. 112 where Robert Parker's Spenser series is put under scrutiny. I just plain enjoy Spenser and his crowd and look forward to each new installment. Perhaps Ms. Corrigan should realize that from time to time, a book is just a book and, sometimes, that's all a reader wants.

  4. Boy, I sure will be giving this one a miss! I had heard about it on Canadian radio a while back when some people were talking about their favorite books (of 2005??). Anyhow, I wrote it down as a possible read sometime.

    You did a great job with your review, and the passages are good examples of her subject matter. Another ho-hum "this is what I like" kind of book.

  5. And to comment on Marcia's post, I agree completely. I love "a book is just a book." And, I have just recently discovered Spenser.:<)

  6. I got this for Christmas last year and still haven't read it. I tried but was not at all what I expected. I'll give another go one of these days but my expectations for it are much lower now :)

    anyway hope you are having a great holiday!

  7. Oh I love Marcia's comment too. Sometimes I want a book to be pure entertainment and not make an impact on my life.

    Reading can be fun!

  8. Bybee - I need to go back to your blog and read your review of the book. Thanks again for sending it to me! I feel bad that I didn't enjoy it more since you took the trouble to send it so far. I do hope that I can return the favor some day.

    Bluestalking Reader - I still think it's worth a try. Everyone has such different reading tastes and this may be a big hit with some readers, especially if they're familiar with a lot of the books referenced by Corrigan.

    Marcia - I didn't really like Nancy Pearl's book. Thought it was basically a book of lists. Sara Nelson's was much more to my liking. So perhaps you might enjoy this one (although it's definitely not a book of lists!). I'd love to hear your thoughts if you do give it a go. With regards to the Spenser series, I haven't gotten to it yet, but I do love Parker's Sunny Randall series!

    Nan - I think I know your reading likes and dislikes well enough to say that you should skip this one.

    Iliana - As I said earlier, I'd love to hear what other readers have to say about this book. Maybe I'll "Blogger Search" the title and see what kind of reviews turn up. Hope you had a good holiday, too!

    SuziQ - I know exactly what you mean about a book that does nothing but entertain. That's what I decide to read after this and one more disappointment. Nothing like a little thriller fluff to get me back in the reading groove.

  9. There were parts of this book that I really liked and parts I felt were slow. I liked "reexperiencing" Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. After reading this book, I added Maltese Falcon to my TBR list. I also liked the quote about reading for authenticity. I definitely liked it bettter than you did.

  10. Booklogged - I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I felt bad that I was disappointed, especially since Bybee was so nice to send me her copy.

  11. Oh my goodness - we really did have completely different reactions! I agree with you about Nancy Pearl - in fact, I have her action figure at work! (Yes, I'm a librarian...)



  12. Melanie - Oh, well. We can't all agree on the same things, right? Have you read Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time? I really enjoy that one.


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