Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan

This book took me almost a month to finish. I’m not proud of that. Think of all the books I could have been reading while I’ve been reading this one. And do you want to know why it took me so long to read this book?

Because it pissed me off.

If you like this book or you like Maureen Corrigan or you like her NPR radio show (Oh, what’s that you say, Maureen? You have a radio show? Well, you should have said something!), then this review is not for you.

Because I did not like this book and I do not like Maureen Corrigan.

First of all, this book is misleading. Its subtitle is ‘Finding and Losing Myself in Books: NPR’s Fresh Air book critic on life as an obsessive reader.’ That title is too long, Maureen. Book titles should not have sub-subtitles, Maureen. And most importantly, Maureen, books with subtitles, especially books with sub-subtitles, SHOULD HAVE ACCURATE ONES!

I thought this would be a charming, lovely book, a sort of mix between Anne Fadiman’s wonderful Ex-Libris (if you haven’t read Ex Libris, stop reading this review right now and go read that book – don’t worry, I’ll understand) and the ubiquitous Book Lust series. I thought it would be a memoir told through the books she’d been reading at important, funny, poignant, whatever times of her life.

It was not.

It was a weird and unsatisfying mashup of the most boring (and not particularly insightful) literary criticism of books that seem unworthy of it (yes, there is such a thing!) and a very pretentious and condescending memoir. Half of the book is spent ‘dissecting’ hard-boiled detective fiction – fair enough, but I didn’t find what she had to say interesting in the least and it certainly didn’t make me say ‘Wow, really? I had no idea hard-boiled detective fiction could be so relevant; I must rush out and read some Dashiell Hammet now!’ (and she gives away the ending of a Lord Peter Wimsey novel which I might have wanted to read someday – lame!) – along with what she annoyingly terms Female Extreme-Adventure Tales (ugh, if I hear that phrase one more time, someone is getting a copy of Jane Eyre hurled at them) and a Catholic girls’ series about Beany Malone (you may have fond memories of it, Maureen, and it may evoke memories of your childhood, but that doesn’t mean it will stand up to literary criticism!) and the other half is spent telling us how smart she is (smarter than us and her ineffectual college students who she despairs of imparting any literary knowledge to – those hopeless, ignorant children who groan at her book choice – maybe you should re-evaluate your syllabus, Maureen – maybe they’re actually CRAP BOOKS!), how wonderful her family is, and how terrific her job is. (On a side note, that may qualify as the longest sentence I’ve ever written – I think my previous record was 54 words…)

We get it, Maureen, you really wanted to call your book Leave Me Alone, I’m Better Than You but your editor thought that would lessen its marketing appeal.

Secondly, the literary criticism sections read like a poorly written college paper. Her writing suffers from Johnny Carson-syndrome (at least I think it was Johnny Carson, though it may be Jerry Lewis, now that I think about it) – on one of the Simpson’s commentaries, Conan O’Brien says that someone once told him that the best way to perform comedy was ‘to tell the audience what you are going to do, then do it, then tell them that it has been done.’ And she does. I think this is part of her superiority complex – we lowly readers wouldn’t understand what we were being told otherwise – but it really annoyed the hell out of me. Maybe in the higher levels of academia (Oh, really, Maureen, do you have a PhD? You do! Now how did I know that?), this is an acceptable practice, but it feels like pandering to me and I don’t have to like it.

And finally, there were so many instances where I was like ‘Oh, where’s a pencil when you need one?!’ so that I could underline a particularly condescending passage or sentence, but then I thought ‘When this book eventually ends up in a used bookstore, I don’t want someone to pick it up and think I was underlining insightful moments,’ so I didn’t. Thus my review here lacks actual hard evidence of her pretentiousness, but it’s impossible to miss if you end up flipping through it at the bookshop or library.

For example, near the beginning of her book, she casually drops an anecdote about how the nickname by which a particular author is now commonly referred to was bestowed upon him by her in one of her early review for the Village Voice. And it’s just thrown out there like something you’d say with a snooty chuckle at a cocktail party where you’re speaking just a little bit louder than you need to so that everyone in your vicinity hears your witty, sparkling bon mot and thinks ‘wow, that person is cool.’ Then she often stops for a moment and says that it’s very aggravating to read reviews or literary criticism where the tone of the writing becomes condescending toward the work itself (What the hell are you talking about, Maureen? You should worry more about the tone of your writing toward the reader!) and coyly remarks that she hopes she hasn’t fallen into that trap. You have, Maureen! You have! And finally, circling back to what I said earlier about her book choices for the courses she teaches, I am this close to being certain that she picked a great number of the books she talks about merely because no one’s ever heard of them which makes her look smart and cool. Now everybody does this – I do this with books and music – but at least I admit that I do it! And the books and music I like are actually good – Maureen is trying to convince us that these obscure books are obscure for no good reason when I would happily argue that there is more than likely a very good reason that no one else likes them.

I know it sounds like I’m being hard on her because her book ended up being not what I expected it to be, but I gave her a fair chance because who doesn’t like reading about books? But she just kept letting me down. And then she made me so mad that I just wanted to finish it so I could rip it apart here for you.

So does anyone out there listen to her radio show? If you’re a fan, I hope you didn’t make it this far and if you did, I hope we’re still friends. If you are a fan, you’ll have to let me know what it is you like about her and how she sounds on her show.

My rating: F-

ETA: Sorry that’s so long – I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t read it – but it feels so good to get that off my chest and out of my head. Now I shall move onto other, better books and soon My Blank Page will once again become a happy, rant-free place. 😉