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Memoir of a Book Lover

Cover of Maureen Corrigan's memoir Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading.
Cover of Maureen Corrigan's memoir Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading.

Maureen Corrigan is one of those lucky people in life who has been able to combine her passion with her profession.

She is Fresh Air's book critic, writes about mysteries for The Washington Post, and is a professor at Georgetown University.

She discusses her new memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, which chronicles her lifelong love of reading.

Excerpt from the introduction to Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books

Hovering over all the ruminations about literature and life that follow is the cosmic question of why so many of us feel compelled to go through life with our noses stuck in a book. I'd like to propose a resolutely earnest answer -- all the years I devoted to reading the Victorian Sages in graduate school have left their mark on my beliefs about literature. 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.

Readers, professional or casual, are alert to passages in a book that illuminate what was previously shadowy and formless. In our daily lives, where we're bombarded by the fake and the trivial, reading serves as a way to stop, shut out the noise of the world, and try to grab hold of something real, no matter how small. Hence the enormous popularity of extreme-adventure tales that take their readers to the "last good places," like the top of Mount Everest or the middle of the ocean -- places that are still unsullied, authentic. Detective fiction, another literary genre that I love and will talk about in this book, oftentimes weaves the search for authenticity into its plots. What I and a lot of other readers consider to be the greatest American detective-fiction tale of all time, Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, describes a fastpaced search for a bejeweled falcon that dates from the Middle Ages.

When detective Sam Spade finally gets his hands on the bird, it turns out to be a fake. Spade, being made of tougher stuff than most of his shocked readers, takes his disappointment in stride and forges on. Detectives, like Spade, are close readers. They have to be to catch all the hidden clues. Spade's close reading throughout The Maltese Falcon as he searches for the authentic treasure mirrors our own activity as readers of the novel, as we search in Hammett's story for something authentic that will deepen our understanding of our own lives.

The roots of my own yearning to read are easy enough to trace. I was a shy kid, an only child who grew up in a two-bedroom walk-up apartment in Queens. Reading offered companionship as well as escape. It also gave me a way to be more like my dad, whom I adored. Every weeknight, after he came home from his job as a refrigeration mechanic and ate supper, my dad would go to his bedroom and read. Mostly, he read adventure novels about World War II. He had served first in the Merchant Marine and, then, after Pearl Harbor, in the Navy on a destroyer escort. Those Navy years were the most intense of my father's life, although he never said so. My dad belonged to that generation of men, forged by the Great Depression and World War II, whose unspoken motto was "The deeper the feeling, the fewer the words." He didn't talk a lot about the war, but I knew it haunted his memory because every night he cracked open a paperback (usually one with an embossed swastika on its cover) and sat smoking and reading. Near his chair was a framed photograph of his ship, the USS Schmitt. To read was to be like my dad and, maybe, to get a glimpse of his experience -- to me, as wide and unfathomable as the sea.

In his youth my dad's reading tastes had been more eclectic. For one thing, he liked poetry. On a childhood expedition into his dresser, I once came across a wrinkled green pamphlet -- the kind, I later learned, that used to be sold on newsstands. It was entitled The Most Wonderful Collection of Famous Recitations Ever Written. They were, too. Inside were funny and melodramatic poems by Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling, and other now-demoted bards. The titles alone would draw a reader in: "The Cremation of Sam McGee," "Casey at the Bat," "Laugh and the World Laughs with You," "Over the Hill to the Poorhouse," "Woodsman, Spare That Tree," "One Day of Turkey, Six Days of Hash." It even included a Shakespeare soliloquy, "All the World's a Stage." I used to hear stories from relatives about how, in his drinking days, my dad would stand up and recite Shakespeare at parties. When I was growing up, the sole evidence of my dad's former hamminess was the line "Sound and fury signifying nothing," which was one of his catchphrases, usually muttered when a politician appeared on television.

He liked Dickens, too. "That's a good one," he said to me when I brought home A Tale of Two Cities from grammar school. As a product of "the American Century," my dad also harbored a great love for American history, particularly the American Revolution. He regularly reread all the novels of F. Van Wyck Mason, took my mother and me on vacation pilgrimages to Valley Forge and Williamsburg, and held me spellbound as a small child, spinning out vivid tales of General Washington's soldiers fighting the British and dying in the snow. Without ever talking about it, my father understood how, through reading, a person's world could be immeasurably enlarged. Because he was happy to see an early love of reading taking hold of me, he even helped me commit my first Catholic-school act of insubordination. We second-graders at St. Raphael's Parochial School weren't allowed to bring our Dick and Jane readers home because the nuns didn't want us reading ahead. (Why? Don't ask. Stay in line.) Memory is hazy on the specifics, but I must have asked my dad for my own copy of the reader. I do remember the two of us going down to Macy's at Herald Square, which, back in the early 1960s, had a big book department, and my dad buying the reader for me. I finished all the stories weeks before we got to them in class, where I sat, bored, during reading period. So, instead of learning to sound out the words I already knew, I learned, firsthand, 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.

Luckily, given my jobs, I don't often have that problem. Still, to guard against that emptiness, I've planked over nearly every surface of the row house I now live in with my husband and daughter with piles of books and magazines. (They each have their own messy, sizeable collection of books and magazines, too.) The books are different and so is the style of furniture, but the basic decorating theme in my house is the same as that in my dad's old bedroom.

My mom, on the other hand, would rather try to talk to just about anybody -- Minnie Mouse, Alan Greenspan -- than read a book. She used to grow restless on those long-ago evenings when my dad and I would be lost in our separate fictional worlds. Because she knew better than to bother him, she'd invariably sidle up to me and complain that I was ruining my eyes by reading in the (perfectly adequate) light of the living room lamp, or she'd feel my head and tell me that I was "getting bumps" from too much reading. Sometimes I'd give in and watch TV with her for a while. But at some point I'd always pick up my book again, leaving her, as she'd complain, "all alone." My poor mother. How did she get stuck with the two of us reader-loners for company?

The necessary solitude of reading has something to do with my mom's disinclination; she also has a Mrs. Malaprop way with words that betrays her essential uneasiness with language. One Sunday morning she called, all excited because she thought she'd won the Lotto. "I'm going to buy you and Rich a condom!" she announced breathlessly. "Have some machos," she once urged us during a visit, offering a plate of chips and salsa. When I gave her a copy of the first theory-encrusted article I ever published in the academic journal English Literature in Transition, she proudly told relatives that I had "written a story" for something called English Literature in Translation. Actually, she was right that time.

She was also eerily on the mark when she would tell people that I was teaching not at Haverford College but at "Rutherford College," a name that sounds like it came out of a Marx Brothers movie.

My mother had the bad luck to be a Depression-era child who had to leave high school early to work and help support her family. For a long time I've worn the small onyx "graduation" ring her older, already working sister gave her to mark the transition. It reminds me of her courage in the face of limited options -- the days spent hiding out at the Paramount Theater when she was supposed to be looking for work, the months spent at the hated factory jobs. It also reminds me to be grateful, especially on those gray mornings when I'm shuffling off to teach a class on a book, like Ann Petry's novel The Street, that I admire for its various strengths but don't particularly enjoy rereading. In the first awful year after my dad's death, I sometimes stupidly sought to ease my mother's grief by prescribing novels for her to read, good thick stories by Susan Isaacs and Maeve Binchy. And, slowly, my mother tried to read them. Maybe she sensed, as I did as a child, that reading was the way to be near my father.

Of course, it's a bit misleading to cast my parents as the Mr. Yin and Mrs. Yang of reading; for one thing, like most human beings, they sometimes acted unpredictably and switched roles. When I was a sophomore in college and recovering from a broken heart, it was my mother who urged my frugal father to help fund a literary escape for me -- a month in Ireland in the company of a few chosen students and our beloved English professor. And I remember visiting my parents years later and turning on the TV set in the living room to watch a BBC production of a Shakespeare play. After about ten minutes, my father began sighing, drumming his fingers on his chair, and otherwise signaling that he found the actors and their orotund tones altogether too fluty; my mom pleaded, "Let her watch it" -- even though neither the Brits in general nor Shakespeare in particular was her cup of tea. Like Lillian Hellman says in her lying-but-magnificent memoir, Scoundrel Time, "The traceries from what you were to what you became are always too raw and too simple."1 Still, I'd say that the very different literary and antiliterary influences of my parents have shaped my life and career. As an English professor and book critic, I'm lucky enough to spend my working life reading, reading, and reading until, as my mother still warns, "my eyeballs will fall out." But the way I talk about books and try to get other people interested in them in the classroom, in print, and on National Public Radio may well owe more to her indifference than to my dad's passion.

Excerpted from Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books. Copyright © 2005 by Maureen Corrigan. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.