Maureen Corrigan is a book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, a book reviewer and writer for The Washington Post’s Book World, an English professor at Georgetown University, and has an English/literature Ph.D. from an Ivy League. What does all of that mean? 1) She has the coolest job(s) in the world, and 2) she has read an insane amount of books.
Corrigan breaks her memoir up into four literary-themed sections: women’s extreme-adventure tales, working for a living, alternatives to the traditional “mating, dating, and procreating” plot, and Catholic martyr stories. Each of these chapters are filled with lengthy discussions on related books, and a very brief discussion (in my opinion) on how they shaped her life.
What I Liked
The introduction of this memoir, as every other Goodreads reviewer will attest to, was magical. To me, it felt like a wand that reached deep into my inner being and lit up every part of it.
I especially loved the discussion of the genre of mystery and what [fictional] detectives have to say about working for a living. I’d usually never give the mystery shelves a second glance in the library, but Corrigan has now sufficiently persuaded and intrigued me to delve into this world.
What’s the Big Deal About Reading? Lines That Made Me Think
“What I did come to understand as I sat 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. But…I think the influence of books is neither direct nor predictable.” (p. 69)
This is a hard statement to make, and a harder question to answer. Corrigan eats, breathes, and possibly even inhales books for a living. Yet she states that books don’t necessarily possess the superhuman power to change a person. This really got me thinking. I agree and disagree. I don’t believe books have that innate power, and I agree that they are indirect and unpredictable in that any given book can have a profound impact on one person but not on another.
However, I do believe that stories (fictional and nonfictional) expose readers to the nuances of our world and the way that humans function: our beauties and our glories, our battles and our gory messes. This knowledge and exposure to hundreds of different peoples and worlds is an absolute privilege and gift that cannot be attained in the confines and restrictions of our everyday life. Understanding people and society is the first step to understanding our needs – and knowing that we aren’t alone in them.
Here’s another quote:
“One Thursday after [September 11th], when classes at Georgetown resumed, I stopped into the office of one of my colleagues, who’s also a native New Yorker, to share the shock. I said to her, ‘All this makes what we do pretty irrelevant, doesn’t it?’ She replied: ‘No more irrelevant than it ever is. We’re always teaching and learning within the shadow of our own mortality.‘ Her remark reminded me of something my father once told me, about how the USS Schmitt had a makeshift library on it, spottily stocked with the classics and adventure stories. Distraction, sure, but essential nourishment for the mind and spirit as well. Books are always necessary cargo.” (p. 181)
What I Wasn’t Expecting
I found this memoir to be more a book about books than it was actually a book about her life. It focused very heavily on literary theory and criticism (think: college-level literature class where each piece of literature is dissected and analyzed for Greater Meaning). It often felt like a very long dissertation than an actual biography. I’m fond of literary theory and Greater Meaning book discussions, so I didn’t much mind it. It just wasn’t something I was expecting, nor something that the average reader would enjoy.
Would I Recommend It?
Only if you like books a lot a lot a lot.
I’ve been thinking about this and probably will for the rest of my life. What do you think? Do books have the power to change people?