Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Read to Live, Live to Read

Maureen Corrigan, author of Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, has a bookworm's dream career. Not only does she teach literature at Georgetown but she also reviews books for NPR. And on top of that, she writes reviews and essays for papers like The Village Voice, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She gets boxes of books for free in the mail every week. She came by her many jobs through perseverance, a little luck, and a lot of reading. In Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, Corrigan writes about her struggles through grad school, her Catholic upbringing, adopting a daughter from China, and reading, reading reading. Corrigan believes that reading affects the way a person lives and sees the world and sets out to show the reader just what she means by examining various genres of books from what she calls female extreme adventure stories to detective fiction to Catholic martyr stories. Along the way she shares personal thoughts and insights like this one:

What I did come to understand through classes at Penn is that reading good books doesn't necessarily make one a good person--or a smarter, funnier, or more cultivated person either. This was a major epiphany for me--one I still struggle to come to terms with, since, as a teacher, I also have to believe that reading good books has some kind of influence on my students. We just can't be sure what it might be. Books are powerful. On that point, conservative culture cranks like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney and I agree. But, unlike those two purveyors of literary uplift, I think the influence of books is neither direct nor predictable.
The unpredictable influence of books is a theme that runs throughout Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. While Corrigan never directly probes the reader, her thoughtful and reflective style prompts the reader to consider her or his own reading influences. One of Corrigan's peeves is the question of the literary value of mysteries--are they merely escapism or are they just as worthy as "highbrow fiction?" Corrigan, who loves mysteries especially "hard-bolied" mysteries, finds much to value in the stories. She sees these books examining issues that plain fiction is ignoring--issues like the value of work, questions of class, gender and family. Her argument is persuasive, perhaps because, while I don't read many mysteries, I do read fantasy and science fiction two other genres that are often considered purely escapist. Serious readers of any kind of genre fiction know that there are overlooked literary masterpieces along with the purely escapist stories. But this can be said about fiction in general and even about books that are these days considered classics. I've never understood the point of disparaging genre fiction. Good writing is good writing no matter if there is a murder to be solved or an alien race to come to terms with. Some readers of Corrigan's book may be peeved because she sort of gives away the endings of a few books. I was not bothered by this because the books in question were mostly classics like Jane Eyre. She does mention a few books that are more current, so if you don't like spoilers, you might want to stay away from certain chapters. It's always a pleasure to read books by people who are passionate about reading. It's a meeting of kindred spirits. Plus, since she is a reader, she kindly sites all the books she mentions and includes a recommended reading list at the back of the book. This is also a form of book torture because I have now added 18 more books to my reading list. I'd better go get reading.