Monday, August 14, 2006

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan

It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.

So begins Maureen Corrigan’s confessional about the perils and delights of being a reader. In Corrigan’s case she is paid to read, but as she hastens to add in her introduction, if that weren’t so, she would have to invent some other excuse. Besides being a professor of literature, Ms. Corrigan also is the book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air, and writes reviews for the Washington Post and other newspapers and journals.

I have to admit that when I started this book, I had my doubts about whether I would finish it. I, too, am a reader by inclination as well as profession, but unlike Corrigan, I no longer feel obliged to read any book that does not capture me quickly and then sweep me along. When Corrigan talks about particular books (as least in this autobiography of a reader), she tells us too much about the plots and reveals too much about the endings, both of which I think a reviewer is morally bound to avoid. But it soon became apparent that she is not really reviewing books in this book about reading and readers; instead, she is talking about kinds of books that have delighted and transformed her, and about why we as readers ought to return again and again to books that change the way we read our own lives.

I recall a time when I would never have considered rereading a book. After all, I thought, and so many of my students have reiterated this thought, there are just so many good books and so little time to read them. Of course, that was before I became a teacher and simply had to keep rereading books as I taught them. No one, I think, can really put down Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason thinking, “Ah, that’s another one done!” Such books yield their nuggets only for those who are willing to dig and dig and dig. But Corrigan convinces me that this is not true only of hard-to-read philosophy and physics texts. After reading her book, I mean really to return to the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontes, and especially Jane Eyre. Austen and the Brontes made a deep and lasting impression on me, but after all, I was still in my teens when I read most of these books, and as Corrigan makes me acutely aware, I simply was not ready, did not know enough, to see the deeper significance in these tales.

There are so many things I could talk about in recommending this book to you. At one point, I considered simply listing her chapter titles and saying a few words about each chapter. Or simply skipping to the end and talking for a few moments about the excellent reading list she provides for serious readers, a service which a few of my reader friends have provided for me in the past, giving me in a moment or two suggestions that took me through a whole summer of reclusive reading. What became increasing clear as I continued reading this book was that I could easily use up all of my allotted space on any one chapter. Corrigan is a leftist, a feminist, and a reader who wants us to love the books that she loves and to see their transformative value. Her feminism and her politics have guided her reading much as I think they have guided mine, so I found it quite natural that she went from women’s extreme adventure stories to women mystery writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Sara Paretsky. The latter genre has provided one outlet for what she calls The Second Wave of feminism, and Corrigan helps me understand why this genre suddenly seemed to me so much more than simply a reader’s way of spending a bit of time.

Given the constraints of time, I think I will concentrate on Corrigan’s first (and in many ways central) chapter: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Women’s Extreme-Adventure Stories,” and her clever and convincing arguments regarding the differences between male and female versions of the adventure genre. But before doing that, let me turn briefly to her epilogue which begins: “I’ve never identified with those up-from-the-working-class stories where the hero (almost always it’s a hero) packs his bags and leaves his humble place of origin never to return.” She points out that while Thomas Wolfe’s pronouncement, ‘“You can’t go home again,’ has achieved the status of woeful fact,” at least for many men, “I know a lot of women in my situation who are always going home again, and again, and again.” They go home or stay at home to care for children and families, return home to nurse and care for aging parents, or simply to try once again to repair and restore communities ravaged by economic plundering and desertion. Corrigan never forgets or denies her working class roots, nor her commitment to social justice. It guides her reading, her reviews, and her life.

Corrigan reminds us that, “For all readers, male and female, there is a discrepancy between the possibilities offered by the world of the imagination and the possibilities offered by real life. But, until the social revolution of the Second Women’s Movement, that discrepancy, generally speaking, had been more gaping for women readers.” And in her first chapter, she tells us in some detail how women’s extreme adventure stories differ from those of men. “The male adventure stories heave with exertion and bleed every few pages or so; women’s feats tend to be less Herculean and more Sisyphean in nature.” But the perils are at least as grave if not graver. Men, she reminds us, tend to seek adventure in packs, while women are isolated by their trials, and it is this very isolation that constitutes the gravest danger, though (for the most part) psychological rather than physical. In what I take to be exceptionally perceptive analyses of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the even more somber and chilling Vilette, Corrigan recounts for us the horrifying solitude and loneliness of the two heroines. “Their first-person narratives are frostbitten to the core. Both heroines recount their individual frantic attempts to escape form subzero existential solitude into the warmth of a sheltering marriage.” Jane, at least to some extent, succeeds, though the path to her eventual marriage is one plagued by solitude, economic hardship, and despair (and the prize of the blinded and in need of nursing care Rochester is questionable at best). Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Vilette, finds no such reward after her long journey through almost unspeakable isolation. Mountains and rivers and artic wastes take their tolls, but so do isolation, poverty, and despair. At least Jane, during her long absence from Thornfield and Mr. Rochester, “…has learned that there is a fate more terrible than solitude: it’s solitude in the company of a husband who essentially misunderstands you.”

Corrigan points out (though I had forgotten or never knew) that Jane Austen is a comic writer, and the desperation of her women characters to find a husband is often at least mitigated by humor not to be found in the dead seriousness of Charlotte Bronte. Still, in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s almost unendurable waiting is meticulously chronicled by Austen, and “The whole fate of her life—indeed, whether she’ll even have what many of her peers would regard as a life—rests on whether this man Darcy looks at her; whether his gaze lingers; and whether he, once again, likes what he sees enough to airlift Elizabeth up and out of the limbo of Longhourn and off to the Cinderella’s castle of Pemberly.”

Corrigan comments so perceptively on Edith Wharton (another of my favorite authors), Sara Paretsky, Dorothy Sayers and a host of other writers; I have only scratched the surface. I invite you to dive into this little book and then into the novels she discusses.