Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan (Vintage Books/Random House, 2005)
For a book with such a promising title, there was surprisingly little I could identify with here. I was expecting something lighthearted about introverts, but it's much more personal and introspective and has nothing to do with introverts, per se. The author is a self-professed leftist, feminist college professor who reviews books for NPR's Fresh Air show and is "ambivalent about the constraints of family and community." In other words, other than a love of books, we don't have a lot in common. That doesn't mean her book can't be interesting, but it was depressing, and if I want that, I can go to Facebook.
Given all the books Corrigan has read, and all the books I've read (though I can't hold a candle to her consumption), we have surprisingly little intersection. Before starting the book I skimmed the recommended reading list in the back, and most of the books I've never heard of, let alone read. However, a (very) few items on the list had the merit of not only being books I love, but ones that most other people I know don't share with me: Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors, and Marie Killilea's Karen and With Love from Karen. That's about it. What kept me going past the first chapter, which I did not like at all, was my eagerness to see what she thought of these favorites of mine.
As it turns out, we may have read (and loved!) the same books, but we sure didn't read them the same way. Truly, what one gets out of a book depends much on what one brings to the experience. Reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading was a vivid reminder of why I hated English class in high school, and why I majored in math in college. Maybe the authors did mean all the weird things that literature teachers pull out of their stories, but if so, I don't really want to know about it. (The only exception I can think of is Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, which I'm fairly certain Corrigan has not read.)
Still, a few quotes stand out.
I learned ... 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.
With this, I identify completely. I usually start planning my next book before finishing the current one.
More puzzling still is the mystery of what happened to Kingsley Amis himself after writing his masterpiece. Amis transformed from an Angry Young Man to a club-going, Merrie Olde England Tory bag of wind. How can such things be? Similar invastion-of-the-body-snatchers-type conversions besmirch literary history: the defection of New York Intellectual Norman Podhoretz to the right; the mutation of progressive reporter Joe Klein, who had written a moving boigraphy of Woody Guthrie, no less, into a centrist pundit and author of the anonymous Clinton parodic novel Primary Colors. Why? Why? Why? If reading good books doesn't necessariy make you a better person, apparently neither does writing them.
There's only so much of that I can stand. This is the same attitude that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Even if you really do think of half your potential audience as Deplorables, it's rarely good policy to say so out loud.
One of the great pleasures of writing book reviews is that I get to say what I think when I also have the time and space to say it right. Nobody interrupts or intimidates—it's just me and my computer. But I'm much more comfortable voicing my opinions, especially the controversial ones, in print than in person.
Me, too on that one.
Corrigan, who calls herself a "skeptical Catholic"—I would say very skeptical, and that her Catholicism owes more to culture than to belief—finally marries, despite some ambivalence.
It now seems quaint, but one of the big obstacles to matrimony ... was that Rich is an atheist Jew and I am a Catholic, sort of. My parents were upset. ... Richard's parents were also unhappy.
It seems "quaint" to Corrigan that her parents were worried about a marriage starting out with the two parties in disagreement on the very basic bedrock of truth? Despite their different labels, apparently they do agree: on the idea that the truth about the nature of the universe matters a lot less than the fact that they both value books and solitude. But that sort of tolerance is no excuse for thinking you're a liberal, progressive person, enlightened and open-minded—it just means you don't care much about the issue. I'm certain Corrigan would not have married a Republican, because that represents a difference that matters to her.
In the opening scene, a scruffy bunch of Irish Catholics, family and friends, are sitting around a restaurant in Queens. Every time the waitress comes by to fill their water glasses or put down a plate, people at the table quickly say "Thank you." I find myself doing that, too—scrupulously thanking anyone in a restaurant or store who's serving me. It's a holdover from the world of my childhood where we were taught to feel gratitude for any service done for us—and where all the parents we knew held down blue- or pink-collar jobs, so there was no sense of superiority to someone working as, say, a waitress. These days, I sit at too many restaurant tables with people oozing privilege who barely acknowledge the waitperson.
No. This is not a "class" difference. My father was an engineer and my mother a mathematician, and we also were taught to feel (and express) gratitude for service done. Not that we had much chance of trying it out on waitresses, since eating out was not in the budget except on vacation and not often even then. But the lesson was clear, by precept and example, and I still say "thank you" when the waiter fills my water glass or brings my dinner. Common courtesy is not a mark of lower class subservience, and its lack is not "privilege"—it's just rudeness.
Literature doesn't work on readers in predictable ways. Sometimes we readers put up with views we don't like in a novel or any other kind of art in exchange for other compensations.
Indeed. If I rejected every book with what I see as serious flaws, my reading list would be mighty short. But even though I don't regret reading it, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading did not provide sufficient compensation to justify its continuing to take up bookshelf space.
Except for the title: that's a keeper.