December 2005

Barbara J. King

features

Corrigan’s Reading: Of Books, Family, and the Academy

Every day, all the time, subject to and despite the pressures of my day job, I read. I read books across genres, cultures, and centuries. People do this. It’s far from an eccentric habit, as anyone who haunts this website knows. In one of life’s ironies, though, people who teach at universities rarely do this -- or, at least they rarely admit to it. Professors read, of course, and talk about what they read. Yet in my experience academics’ book-talk is tightly linked to the arena of one’s own discipline and thick with dismissive remarks along the lines of… "Oh if only I had the time for […slight pause] novels!" (Professors of English or other literary traditions, who outpace me abundantly in breadth and depth of novel-reading, are naturally exempted from this vent.)

Fifteen years ago, as a newly fledged Assistant Professor, I would sometimes allow vaguely to my colleagues as how, yes, I did like to read outside of science, even beyond mysteries (mysteries are widely understood to be a forgivable escapism for overworked, puzzle-solving scientist types). Later, buoyed by the safety net of tenure, I amped things up and enthused specifically about contemporary literary fiction. Recently garnished with that strangest of academic titles, Full Professor, I now fling around titles and authors with self-confessional abandon. “My name is Barbara, and I buy novels. Lots of them. Some are mysteries: Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Laurie King, Donna Leon, Carol O’Connell, Ian Rankin. And sure, I read Byatt, Ishiguro, and McEwan, but also Calvino, Farah, Oz, and Vassanji.” About four of my colleagues even know that I contribute to Bookslut.

Maureen Corrigan’s Leave me Alone, I’m Reading was book #56 for me this year (okay, I’m no Jessa, but I ask you, has Jessa graded 300 essays on apes and australopithecines this semester?). Falling into the pages penned by the owner of my second-most-loved-radio-voice-ever (surely Corrigan will forgive my reserving the top spot for her NPR colleague Terry Gross), I felt immediately at home. Corrigan writes intimately about what gives her life meaning, the very same things that give my life meaning -- family, friends, books (though I’d add animals). This mix is spiced with a dash of bitterness toward academia, or at least toward some of her academic experiences. It’s a bitterness far darker than any of my own occasional ivy-tower frustrations.

Books first, of course. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my book #55, David Ellis’s In the Company of Liars, was the perfect lead-in to the Corrigan. Ellis’s mystery-thriller, written captivatingly in reverse chronology, zapped my brain with a shot of needed adrenaline during a period of relentless insomnia. It kept me alert and engaged with an intriguing fictional universe. Cracking open the Corrigan, I was primed for a paean to supposedly frivolous literature of this sort. Here’s Corrigan on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels:

The question of the literary value of mysteries and whether or not reading them -- as much as I do -- is mere escapism or just as worthwhile as reading highbrow fiction really comes to the fore with the Spenser series. Lots of critics sneer at Parker, claiming his novels are, at best, interesting for their sociological content. Similarly, lots of critics and readers look down their noses at the entire genre of detective fiction, disparaging it as "beach reading." A standard cliché in positive reviews of mystery fiction is to claim that a particular book "ranscends the genre"…. When mysteries are great, they’re some of the most magical, psychologically insightful, metaphysically complex, and narratively sophisticated novels ever written.

But the beauty of the book is its very jumble: Robert B. Parker in one chapter, the Brontes in another, Catholic martyr stories (Beany Malone and Tom Dooley! talk about odd pairings) in a third. Never is Corrigan more original, or more provoking, then when she analyzes the female extreme-adventure tale, a quite different beast than its male counterpart. Male adventure stories represent “the trend in non-fiction writing -- apart from autobiographies -- for roughly the past decade.” No into-thin-air or perfect-storm chroniclers on the women’s side, though: the female extreme-adventure tale (fictional or nonfictional) is “light on feats of derring-do and braggadocio, heavy on anxious waiting and endurance.” In situations ranging from assorted pregnancy issues to abusive relationships and “fatiguing caregiving,” women’s “physical ordeals are augmented or even outweighed by heavy emotional burdens.” Indeed, the emphasis is typically on “the threatened loss of [a woman’s] sanity and… sense of self.”

This is adventure? Makes you want to grab some spare oxygen and head right for base camp, doesn’t it? My response to this part of the book is split down the middle. Corrigan brilliantly dissects Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice in this vein (yes, the marriage market is ripe for extreme adventure tales). And she makes incisive points about the gender disparity in contemporary as well as historical times in obligations and opportunities, and about the triumphs women experience when they endure and succeed in their “adventures.” But I couldn’t entirely get past the semantics or their implications. The New York Times recently published a front-page article called “Forget the Career. My Parents Need Me at Home,” which profiles a new trend, the Daughter Track. In increasing numbers, women are walking away from their careers to care for aging parents, many of whom suffer from dementia. Daughter Trackers often describe this choice as an opportunity rather than an obligation, according to the article. I understand this, given that these same women at first struggled to care for their parents while working at full-time jobs, and were simply exhausting themselves. Clearly, such a choice is a loving one. But is this the stuff of women's adventure?

[An aside about gender-typing: What’s with, “[W]hile lots of wonderful heterosexual women I know seem destined to live out their lives without romantic partners, a man… inevitably seems to find an adoring mate”? Stark essentialism, that. Does Corrigan not know any lonely men, whatever their sexual orientation?]

Corrigan lives in dynamic relationship with her books: reading them changes her. But this relationship is not merely dyadic, not just Maureen, the only child who grew up in Queens, and her books. It encompasses too Maureen’s mother, a “reading-averse” woman, and her father, who so loved books about the sea and World War II. Indeed, it embraces a succession of Maureens, ranging from the good Catholic-school student to the bright light who goes off to the Ivy League but itches with unease once there, to the wife who suffers through infertility but flies with her husband to China and adopts the love of their life, baby Molly. Leave Me Alone is as much an account of the trajectory of these relationships and Corrigan’s personal growth as it is of the books themselves:

Just as I think decades of avid reading are indirectly responsible for opening up my mind and heart to the idea of adopting my daughter from China, I think my discovery of and consuming love affair with detective fiction midway through graduate school steered me away from a career as a scholar. In both cases, books made me see myself differently and gave me a wider sense of possibilities.

So let’s get to it, what about graduate school and her turn away from academia? (Not a 180-degree turn, I should point out: Corrigan teaches classes at Georgetown University.) Apparently U Penn wasn’t exactly a relaxed, open and inviting atmosphere for a working-class Catholic girl from Queens -- to the extent that Corrigan’s first academic dinner party left her “drenched in self-loathing.” She stays on, but “shamble[s] listlessly around” the “uniquely awful” Penn as a result. Creepiest of all of the descriptions in this section is the one recounting Corrigan’s encounter with Professor Y from her doctoral committee, who suffered from eczema: “From his scabrous scalp to his swollen red fingers, every inch of the visible skin on his body was inflamed and flaking.” As the two reviewed her writing, Corrigan’s dissertation manuscript “became coated with flakes of dead skin.” Their task finished, Professor Y congratulated Maureen on completing the requirements for her PhD. “He slowly stood up and shook my hand. More dead-skin flakes. I was one of them now.”

That is just Vlad-like enough to make this reader shiver. Did Corrigan get degreed, or fanged on the throat? Never mind. “A forgettable book disappoints or merely meets our conscious expectations,” as Corrigan puts it, and by that measure, I give Leave Me Alone an A (grading is a reflex action at this time of the academic year). During office hours, though, I’d tell Corrigan to lighten up on the whole academic martyr thing. Maybe we could repair together to a campus café for novel-talk. Loudly and in public!

--Barbara J. King writes and teaches (happily) at William & Mary