Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Review of "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" by Maureen Corrigan (Random House, 2005)

Looking at my Goodreads account, it lists over 1500 books I've read and there must be many books I've read in my life but I can't remember to post. We recently moved and gave away hundreds of books but still have hundreds more, some on shelves and some still in boxes. So it wasn't difficult for me to relate to and delight in Maureen Corrigan's love of books. Corrigan is most famous for her weekly book reviews on NPR's program about cultural trends, Fresh Air.
Especially since many of the books she loves, I love. When someone praises Raymond Chandler, I'm already well on the way to calling that person friend. But one thing made me wonder whether she would be hesitant to call me friend; because, I am, politically conservative.

You might not think a book about literature, about how books enrich us and occasionally deceive us would be a relatively nonpartisan affair. And much of the book is. But at times she puts her political leanings front and center such as in her account of a job interview at Columbia University where she says she "tried to pass myself off as a 'soft' Marxist (not exactly what Lenin had in mind." Whether she truly considers herself a Marxist or not isn't quite clear but she certainly considers herself part of the political left.

She can be quite dismissive of conservative lovers of books, such as in this passage, "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 or predictable." (Yes, that's a point far too subtle for these conservative dunces to grasp.)

The worst thing Corrigan seems to be able to imagine is for a person to become coservative. She adores Kingsley Amis' satire of academia, Lucky Jim, but is distressed that Amis "transformed from an Angry Young Man to a club-going, Merrie Old England Tory bag of wind. How can such things be?" She notes other instances of awful transformation, "Similar invasion-of-the -body-snatchers-type conversions besmirch literary history: the defection of New York Intellectual Norman Podhoretz to the right, the mutation of progressive reporter Joe Klein, who had written a moving biography of Woody Guthrie, no less, into a centrist pundit and author of the anonymous Clinton parodic novel Primary Colors. Why? Why? Why? If reading good books doesn't necessarily make you a better person, apparently neither does writing them."

So, a progressive is a better person even than a centrist. And mocking the philandering and dishonest is over the line, I assume because it hurts "the cause".

But consider the moral behavior Corrigan give a pass. She laughingly refers to the fraudulence of the autobiographical writings of Lillian Hellman, but seems to find them delightful nonetheless. And she mentions when she teaches about Dashiell Hammett she speaks admirably about his deserting his wife and child to devote himself to writing. Apparently, their leftist leanings excuse such behavior.

One wonders how Corrigan survives at National Public Radio and teaching at Georgetown University where there is such a diversity of political thought. (She does have some conservatives, apparently, in her life. When she talks about the diverse group of people at her wedding she says that there were "even a few Republicans.")

I did appreciate a chapter wherein she praises some Catholic novels from her youth. Though now she considers herself at best a nominal Catholic, she still values many of the lessons learned from nuns in her youth (though she has distain for much of the Church's theology and practice.) But she notes that much current literary criticism writes of Western religion with dismissive condensation.

I've long enjoyed Corrigan's book reviews on Fresh Air and I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed her tales of growing up, going to a parochial school in the '60's before going to graduate school and a career in public radio and academia. It's just a little sad to read about how she has in her life traded one rather narrow view of the world for another.

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