Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (Maureen Corrigan, 2006)

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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.

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The Shelf From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Phyllis Rose, 2014)

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My first reaction when I heard of The Shelf was something like — wonderful, a book on books by Phyllis Rose, I love Parallel Lives, why has it never occurred to me that she might still be writing?

My second reaction was astonishment — wait, you can make a book out of that?

Rose’s project begins in the New York Society Library. She is at loose ends for what she wants to read, gazing at shelf after shelf filled with books by authors largely forgotten, and begins to wonder:

Who were all these scribblers whose work filled the shelves? Did they find their lives as writers rewarding? Who reads their work now? Are we missing out? I wonder if, at some point, all readers have the desire that I had then to consume everything in the library, but it is a desire no sooner formulated than felt to be impossible. One shelf, however, might be read, a part to stand for the whole. Even that would take time and perseverance.

Thus I came to the idea of choosing a shelf at random and reading my way through it to find what I would find.

Others must speak for themselves, but I have felt that urge many, many times. Standing in a library, surrounded by books, I want to read them all — or perhaps not to read them so much as to know them — who the authors are, when and where and why they wrote, which books might bring me pleasure, which I should avoid. And, like Rose, I have done reading projects; during university I would create idiosyncratic sets of rules using Library of Congress call numbers to narrow the impossibility of reading the entire library into a list I could manage. Rose is looking for fiction, and she develops her rules gradually as shelf after shelf fails to suit her. Eventually she decides that the shelf she chooses must contain both male and female authors, with contemporary and older books, including one classic she wants to read but hasn’t, and no books by authors whom she knows personally. Furthermore, no matter how overwhelmingly prolific an author had been, she will read only three of their works. Using these rules she finds her shelf, LEQ-LES, chooses 23 books by its 11 authors, and spends the next year exploring them — resulting in this marvellous, warm, exciting book of essays, a travelogue that truly earns its subtitle: Adventures in Extreme Reading.

When I first saw that subtitle I was inclined to roll my eyes. How could sitting and reading a book, even a truly wonderful book, be considered an adventure? Which is ridiculous of me; I know very well how a work of art can enter the psyche and change one’s interior landscape, but still — an adventure? But Rose, through her determination to explore, creates adventures for herself beyond the psychological. She treats the books as terrain and looks at them from varying angles, willing to experience something new even if the book itself is a disappointment. Etienne Leroux’s prose is impenetrable? She contacts the critic who reviewed his works 40-something years earlier and asks for his opinion, then takes to YouTube, finally finding the connection she seeks by watching a video of Leroux’s majestic funeral. Her classic, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, is overwhelmed by the combative nature of Nabokov’s famous translation? Rose seeks out another translation, and another, paying attention to how each experience differs, challenging herself to find the power and beauty others claim the text contains. And so she goes, through her shelf, refusing to simply sit still and read, but engaging fully with each book she encounters. Rose is fearlessly curious about the range of possibilities each book suggests, and it is this fearlessness that makes The Shelf a travelogue of adventure rather than a package tour.

What moved me the most during my reading, however, was that Rose allows her curiosity to put the comforts of her everyday life at risk. She reaches out to critics, publishers, a cover photographer, and to several of the authors themselves, asking questions, inviting discussions of her project — and with both Rhoda Lerman and Lisa Lerner, these initial contacts develop into relationships. I loved watching the growth of Rose’s friendship with Lerman, an author of feminist fiction who is now “immersed in dogginess” as a breeder of Newfoundlands.  Lerman’s aesthetic is such that the novel she feels is her best work turns out to be, for Rose, “a book I cannot read” — but the two women quickly fall into rapport and build a strong connection.  Over time Rose comes to like and respect Lerman as another human being instead of only valuing her as a particular sort of writer, and decides to “try to open myself up to who and what Rhoda is.” The generosity of spirit here stuns me; I find it difficult at times to open myself up to who people actually are, rather than who I wish them to be, and having done so, it is terrifying to admit that I was at first closed and am only now becoming open. Rose has the courage to do just that, and it is her courage and generosity which shape the entire book.

Where do these traits come from? Rose’s life is her own, of course, but in my eyes she is a woman who stands upon solid ground. She knows what it is she wants when she reads, she owns her tastes without fear or shame, and thus she is able to judge with confidence — and that same confidence allows her to step back, look again, and consider whether or not she is wrong. Building such solid ground for oneself is a process which takes years; for most of us it is much easier to rely upon the opinions of others.  At the end of The Shelf Rose calls on her readers to begin that process:

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others. Intensity, uniqueness, variety, specificity — these are qualities I value, but perhaps you will not. Size is important to me: capaciousness in a work of fiction, length in a career. What do you value? Why?

I have long struggled with what it is I want to do with this blog, and now I think I know. I will try, to the best of my ability, to document my own adventures in reading, without guilt or shame — although as those feelings inevitably arise, I will document them too. For two and a half years now I have been trying to build my own solid ground for which to write poetry and fiction, to discover my tastes and create my own vocabulary to express it. There are times when I am still mystified by my reactions, unable to find the reason that one book moves me deeply while another leaves me bewildered or dissatisfied. Why not bring the journey here to my blog, and share it with whoever happens to stop by? For those that do, I invite you to enter into this adventure with me — but in company or alone, here is the beginning.

Traveling Through the Dark (William Stafford, 1962)

I just finished this book after two years of reading; a very long time for one collection of poetry, especially one as short as this — 100 pages, more or less. I am glad I went slowly, however. Some of his language reminds me of early Auden, although that is a comparison I am not truly qualified to make — still, I saw it, whether or not it is accurate. But aside from those very occasional moments of obliquity, most of the poems in this volume are deceptively simple, making it easy just to rush through, reading for sense and the evocative phrase without looking deeper. I still lack a proper aesthetics of poetry, so I cannot really articulate what it is that deeper means to me, but experientially I found that if I liked a poem on first reading, it was worth my time to read it four or five times, slowly, pausing between the readings to feel the shape of it. Once the shape came, I could enter into it, or perhaps it to me, and feel the connections that poetry makes outside of words or logic or thought, which for me is the greatest reward of reading it; it is a knowledge like the knowledge of the body, how I may ride a bike or type these words or slice an apple without having to think through each instant of motion.

Here is one poem I liked very much:

Things We Did That Meant Something (1958)

Thin as memory to a bloodhound’s nose,
being the edge of some new knowing,
I often glance at a winter color–
husk or stalk, a sunlight touch,
maybe a wasp nest in the brush
near the winter river with silt like silver.

Once with a slingshot I hit a wasp nest:—
without direction but sure of right,
released from belief and into act,
hornets planed off by their sincere faith.
Vehement response for them was enough,
patrolling my head with its thought like a moth:—

“Sometime the world may be hit like this
or I getting lost may walk toward this color
far in old sunlight with no trace at all,
till only the grass will know I fall.”

What may I say about that better than what Stafford said himself? To do something which means, to release oneself from belief into action, the way that in nature there is reaction to the action without thought, and the realisation of fragility, that the world may be rocked by a blow out of nowhere, whether it is the outside world or one’s internal world. It is very simple, a clear picture, a story of a moment, and it also expands into much more. To be simple without being facile is either a great gift or hard-earned craft; Stafford, I think, began with the first and in his habit of writing daily developed the second. I am looking forward to more of his work, read slowly over the next years.