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.