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Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for the NPR program Fresh Air, and a lit professor and writer of reviews for various publications. This is her memoir about reading and books and the things books have done to her life, good, bad, and indifferent.

In general there are two things that cause me to enjoy a memoir about reading (assuming it is at least moderately competently written). The first is the amount of insight the writer has into the whys and hows of their personal ways of reading, the reasons behind themselves as a reader; I tend to become annoyed with writers who settle on one explanation for their love of books and stick to it (especially if that reason is 'clearly it must have been escapism', Francis Spufford, I am looking at you). The second is the number of new-to-me books that the author makes sound interesting and worthwhile.

Corrigan is completely covered on that second front, because, bless her, she includes an entire separate list of the books recommended in her book, at the back, where you can find it easily, and it is a solid mix of things I have never heard of and things I have loved passionately for years, which bodes very well. I had been getting ready to get a piece of paper and a pen and go back through the entire text to note things down and I very much appreciate not having to do that.

As far as the first thing goes, she does the usual thing of weaving her own life and the books she was reading at the time together and discussing what effects the books had on her choices, and this is competently done, but she also does something I haven't seen in this genre before, which is that a pretty significant chunk of the book is devoted to actual interesting criticism. Apparently this trumps deep personal insights for me in terms of enjoyability. At any rate, she has some lovely close-reading work in here, and some thoughts on various genres that are original and insightful, and she's interested in many of the same things I am-- books about women, about aging, about work and other subjects not generally written about-- only her home genre is the mystery and not the fantastic, and so most of her examples are new to me. And glory be, she's a real feminist critic too, and a well-grounded one, cites Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic straight off and shares the heart-stopping terror over Charlotte Bronte's Villette that I have only previously seen among critics in Joanna Russ (seriously, there are ways in which Villette is the most frightening book I have ever read, period, end of sentence). She appears to have missed reading anything at all in fantasy or science fiction, which is enough to make one want to send her a huge pile of things poste restante, except that due to her radio celebrity people evidently do this to her all the time; but she is explicitly writing about female visions of utopia in twentieth-century American literature and oh there are things that could fit into her arguments.

Also, she read Gaudy Night while teaching at Bryn Mawr, which means she has all the same associations with it that I do, which Does Not Happen With Critics.

Honestly, my primary complaint about this book is that it's a memoir. Because as a memoir it is interesting, it is well-done, but it doesn't have the originality and free play of the criticism; I've seen things very much like it before. She's thought through her reasons for reading rather more thoroughly than many writers have, but still. I suspect this of being more publishable as a memoir than as a freestanding book of lit-crit using elements of memoir in portions of its argument-- I'm not even sure you can just publish generalist critical studies in a non-academic context right now, not when the point is the generalism and not a readily summarizable thesis statement. But I would cheerfully read stacks more of her critical essays, whereas, if I were told she'd written a more conventional autobiography, not so much.

If you read criticism for fun-- and if you don't, why don't you? it's the best way ever to pick up book recommendations, and to figure out which theorists you consider particularly pernicious, so that when people express fervent devotion to them at parties you can back away slowly-- if you read criticism for fun, you will not want to miss this. If you are an aficionado of the reader's memoir, it isn't terrible.


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March 2017

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