Speaking Volumes: ‘Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading’: Festival caters to all tastes

Now that we're well into this year's JCC Jewish Book Festival, it seems the perfect time to discuss some works that have appeared in recent months dealing specifically with the pleasures of books and reading, and the craft of writing.

One of the most entertaining of the lot is Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux. The work is edited by Anne Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar, who initiated a "Rereadings" column when she first took over at that venerable quarterly eight years ago. These are 17 of her favorites, which look at works as disparate as the Sue Barton books (a series for juvenile readers), J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey and Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma.

Rereadings should be of special interest to those who long ago fell under the spell of Fadiman's earlier book of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, which contained columns she wrote for Civilization magazine, where she served as editor before the Scholar tapped her. Just perusing the contents page of Ex Libris can get bibliophiles salivating. There you find titles like "Scorn Not the Sonnet," "Never Do That to a Book" and "The Literary Glutton." For those who can't get enough of books – and books about books – this is as close to heaven on earth as they'll ever get.

Rereadings is not as consistently wonderful as Ex Libris; how could it be? Fadiman only edited it. And be forewarned: though several of the contributors are Jewish, there isn't a single Jewish book discussed in these pages, although Salinger's Franny and Zooey might qualify as being marginally Jewish, since the Glass family, like Fadiman herself, is half-Jewish.

Anne Fadiman explains in her foreword that in the Rereadings column in the Scholar, "a distinguished writer chose a book (or a story or a poem or even, in one case, an album cover) that had made an indelible impression on him or her before the age of 25 and reread it at 30 or 50 or 70. The object of the writer's affections might be famous or obscure; a venerated classic or a piece of beloved trash; a fairy tale read as a child, a novel read in the throes of first love, a reference work that guided the early stages of a career."

Of the act of rereading itself, Fadiman says this: "One of the strongest motivations for rereading is purely selfish: it helps you remember what you used to be like. Open an old paperback, spangled with marginalia in a handwriting you outgrew long ago, and memories will jump out with as much vigor as if you'd opened your old diary. These book memories, says Hazlitt, are 'pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.' Or our unhappiest. Rereading forces you to spend time, at claustrophobically close range, with your earnest, anxious, pretentious, embarrassing former self, a person you thought you had left behind but who turns out to have been living inside you all along."

While no piece here is quite as lovely as the foreword, the essays are all well worth a look.

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Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading is a very different sort of book from either Ex Libris or Rereadings, though it touches on many of the same issues. The author is Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR show "Fresh Air," and though Fadiman would agree with the sentiment expressed in the book's title and subtitle – Finding and Losing Myself in Books – Corrigan's just not in the same league with Fadiman, as a thinker or stylist.

The main trouble with Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading is the "I" in the title. There's just too much Corrigan and not enough about the books themselves. A peek at the contents page tells a lot about the work. There you find chapter headings like: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough: Women's Extreme-Adventure Stories (and One of My Own)"; "Tales of Toil: What John Ruskin and Sam Spade Taught Me About Working for a Living"; "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: What Catholic Martyr Stories Taught Me About Getting to Heaven – and Getting Even."

What such titles suggest is that books will be somehow secondary here, used to illustrate what happened to a young, impressionable woman at various stages in her life; but what really arises – and more so as the book progresses – is the author's story. This is really a memoir, no matter how it's been packaged; it's a coming-of-age saga, as the jacket copy puts it, and not the ruminations of a critic about what literature means in the grand scheme of things.

Corrigan is not a stylist – her prose has the slightly tinny rhythms of words meant to be read aloud. Nor does she offer a very highly developed sense of taste. Her recommendations conform to most of what the critical establishment has said about the majority of high-profile titles.

When a critic turns her attention to a work, especially a classic, what we expect is not the age-old reading or a peddling of a standard notion of the book's worth. We expect a new angle, a bit of insight no one else has had before.

Corrigan's verdicts are pretty run of the mill. Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading has its moments but, for dedicated readers, these have less to do with critical acumen and more to do with authorial navel-gazing.

• • •

Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books by Donna Seaman, just out from Philadelphia's own Paul Dry Books, is another work that suffers somewhat from language that was first spoken rather than written.

Seaman is the host of a Chicago-based radio program called "Open Books," and the majority of the conversations in Writers on the Air are transcriptions of interviews from that show.

I always thought that the best interviewers were unobtrusive, asking leading, simply stated questions that would draw out their subjects. The interviewer then got out of the way, leaving the mike to the interviewee. There's too much of Seaman here, and too much about the lofty nature of the writer's craft and the moral beacon provided by literature. Seaman and her subjects keep patting themselves on the back because they read and write, and so, have a more exalted outlook on life. They also feel that if everyone else read as much as they did, then the world would be a better place.

I love to read, and hold the craft of writing high up there in the pantheon of things you can do with your life, but I'm far too cynical to believe that writing – either creating or reading it – makes you a better person.

Seaman, who is Jewish, talks to several Jewish writers – Diane Ackerman, Edward Hirsch, Alan Lightman, Philip Lopate, though they do not discuss Jewish issues per se. There's lots of interesting bits and pieces to be found embedded in these lengthy conversations, if you can maneuver around the hot air. Two of my favorites are with Kate Moses, author of Wintering, a novel based on the marriage of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and the discussion with Lopate about his spirited book Waterfront, about Manhattan's watery periphery.

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If all this talk has whet your appetite, there are two writers coming to the Jewish Book Festival this week you might want to get acquainted with. Myla Goldberg, author of the popular novel Bee Season, soon to be released as a movie starring Richard Gere, broadens her canvas considerably with her new novel, Wickett's Remedy, leaving the intense Jewish milieu of her first book far behind. The new work deals with the 1918 influenza epidemic, a topic that's taken on an eery prescience with the Asian bird flu now nipping at our heels. Goldberg comes to the Gershman Y at noon on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

At 7 p.m., on the same day and at the same venue, Jeremy Schaap will discuss Cinderella Man: James Braddock, Max Baer and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. One thing's for sure – Schaap's take on this tale is far more compelling than the Ron Howard film of the same name, despite the presence of Australian bad boy Russell Crowe.

For more information on book-festival events, call 215-446-3021.



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