It is very uncomfortable to write about disliking the book of a living, working author and critic, who might, just conceivably, come across my review and feel bad about it. And yet, truth and bravery: I read Maureen Corrigan’s bibliomemoir Leave me Alone, I’m Reading and disliked it intensely. There is some lovely writing about books, but most of it I found dreary, and I only finished it out of pure stubbornness — I really wanted to know why every time I picked it up I began to feel like the colour was being drained from the world.
To begin with the lovely part, Corrigan is both a book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air and a professor at Georgetown University, and when she speaks professionally, suggesting unusual ways to read certain novels, she is fascinating. Yes, one certainly can approach the hardboiled detective novel as a “utopian vision of the kind of work everyone would like to have” — the idea could be a book of its own. Even better is her view of Jane Eyre and Villette as “Shackletonian slogs across the ice and snow of polar emptiness toward the elusive fires of human companionship” — truly brilliant, I will take this with me in my future readings of the Victorians, to remind me how high the stakes really were for women in the marriage market. I disagree with some of her angles of approach, in particular I think her reading of Sayers’ Gaudy Night is mostly about Corrigan’s own class experience mixed with a certain unconscious heterosexism, but it is honest disagreement, which is in itself enjoyable. I would have loved an entire book filled with such readings.
Unfortunately, that is not this book. The bulk of it is memoir, and after some reflection I realised that I was stumbling over the largest challenge of reading personal narratives — what if one dislikes the voice of the memoirist? Let me be quite clear: there is an actual person out there in the world named Maureen Corrigan, and I cannot and would not judge her as a human being. But there is another woman, the self she created in this memoir, whom I must refer to by the same name or else this review will be unwriteable, and that self comes across as both judgemental and misanthropic. Corrigan-the-memoirist is a person who loves books because they do not make the demands upon her sympathy and attention — unlike, say, a stranger at an adoption information session, the one Corrigan complains about, who “makes you listen to his songs or imparts to you her Philosophy of Life, or gives you a detailed travelogue of his trip to Vladivostock.” It never seems to occur to her that these strangers she grouses about may be reaching out for connection; what she takes away from her experiences is that “most people don’t know how to talk in front of other people” — these strangers sharing their adoption stories don’t “keep it short and entertaining.” Yet even as she delivers these judgements, she seems uncomfortable with them and herself, insisting defensively that anyone else “sitting, hungry and tired, for hours on a folding chair” would feel just the same. Moments such as this permeate the book, and as I read I could not shake the feeling that Corrigan is unaware that the human beings around her are the centres of their own stories, not merely characters in her own.
Having read this directly after Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, I cannot help comparing how each work presents the act of reading. Rose reads outwards, letting the books make bridges to new parts of the world, while Corrigan aims inwards, reading to make up for what she sees as deficiencies in herself and her own life. Corrigan loves “feminist mystery fiction” because “in tense conversations I tend to get quiet or stammer.” Explaining that she is “raring to become one of their cheeky heroines and get a taste of a way I’ll never be,” she never considers that she could, for instance, take some assertiveness training, or otherwise challenge herself to change. But why should she bother? Books are always tidier than life, and Corrigan seems to prefer the former. Her choice is clearest when, after reminiscing for over a dozen pages about her childhood reading of the memoirs of the Killilea family, she explains that she has no desire to know what happened to them after the beloved books ended. Comparing it to her own memories of childhood classmates, Corrigan says that she doesn’t “want their stories updated” because it is “better for me to remember” them as they were. I find it both distasteful and problematic, this flattening out of reality so that lived memory and stories from books are identical, and the more so because Corrigan so clearly prefers her static internal world over the messy external one in which life continues after the memoir is over. It is her choice, but I find the atmosphere stale; no light, no air, and thus the world in monochrome. I am glad that I now understand it; perhaps if I feel it again from another book I will have the good sense to stop reading right away.
Next week: embarking on a poetry adventure, the mystery of Paul Tobenkin, and (if the beginning of kindergarten for my daughter allows) perhaps a post about some books I enjoyed.