Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Salon: Tales of Toil

Each Sunday, I am reading a chapter of Maureen Corrigan's memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, and sharing my thoughts as I go. This is Part Three.

Chapter 2 - Tales of Toil: What John Ruskin and Sam Spade Taught Me About Working for a Living

Maureen could not wait to be an English Professor. She was excited at the prospect of attending an Ivy League school for her doctorate. Only, it wasn't quite what she expected. She was woman, for one, and women, although gaining strides on the equality front, were still not taken very seriously in 1977. The climate was not at all what she expected. There was a definite class distinction, and it was sometimes ruthlessly competitive; many kept to their own specific literary field of study. She had hoped for a more open and inviting experience, where book lovers would take pleasure in fraternizing about books and reading. In reference to her experience in graduate school, Maureen writes, " Books got me into this mess, and books got me through." [pg 67]

My own graduate school experience was much different than Maureen's, but then, I did not pursue an education or career in literature. Sometimes I wish I had, but most of the time I know I chose the right path for me. I knew it the first day of graduate school, as I sat in my first class and was swept up by an overwhelming feeling that I finally found the place I belonged. I did sometimes question my sanity, and once my career was under way years later, I would wonder what I had been thinking, wishing I hadn't quite been as idealistic and caring as I had been. Deeper inspection, however, never fails to make me appreciate the direction I did decide to travel. For all the headaches, I like what I do and feel that I am in the right place. That doesn't mean there are not days I would much rather be working in a bookstore or getting paid to read.

As I mentioned last week, although I am often drawn to novels with strong female protagonists, I have no trouble losing myself in a book regardless of the main character's gender. Maureen Corrigan points to Nancy K. Miller's idea of "'learned adrogony'--that is, the ability to effect a sex-change operation of the imagination, an ability, I, along with millions of other female readers, had developed over decades of reading books mostly featuring male heroes and antiheroes." [pg 64] Of course, "learned adrogony" extends to male readers as well. My husband's love for Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series comes to mind as an example. When I read a book, I most often become a part of the story and am not just a mere observer. I step into someone else's shoes for a short while, feel and experience what he or she is feeling. It doesn't matter whether the character whose shoes I wear is male or female.

"I certainly don't think that we readers only or even chiefly enjoy or understand books whose main characters mirror us. In fact, the opportunity to become who we are decidedly not . . .is one of the greatest gifts reading offers." [pg 70] Being able to relate or connect to a character has long been an important factor in my enjoyment of a book. I have to care about the characters and want to know what happens to them. Still, I most often enjoy reading about people whose lives are different than my own, who live in different cultures, and face challenges that I will most likely never encounter. Their stories and experiences are often universal in a general sense, which is what makes them more easily relatable.

Struggling through her dissertation, Maureen discovered a love for hard boiled detective fiction. Dasheill Hammett and Raymond Chandler swept her off her feet. ". . . you find the books you need when you need them--even if they're not the books you start out thinking you need." [pg 73-74] The more she read, the more Maureen began to see a common thread running through the genre fiction she turned to for escape and the Victorian classics she studied in school. They all seemed to touch on similar social issues, whether intentional on the author's part or not. Today, classes are taught about genre fiction, such as crime fiction. While it is still not taken as seriously as it might be, the significance of genre fiction in our culture is no longer being completely overlooked either, which, I think, is a step in the right direction.

Maureen suggests that one appeal of detective fiction is the working class voice so often used in the telling of a story as is the very fact that of the focus on work itself. It speaks to us because we can so easily identify with it. She goes on to say, "I think a lot of us fans find detective novels so riveting not because we care who-dun-it . . . but because we care about how the detectives do it--how they work." [pg 76] I know this is true for me. I am a master at figuring out the who-dun-it early on in crime fiction novels not because I set out to, but because it is just how my brain works. I take pleasure in reading how characters get from point A to point B and then on to point C. I am curious about the why and the how of it. The process is what fascinates me most, after all, isn't that the meat of any story?

Maureen's experiences in graduate school served to be both a reality check as well an opportunity to explore literature in a new and different way. She stepped outside of her own box and it proved to be very enlightening.

Part One: Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading!
Part Two: Women's Extreme Adventure Stories


  1. I liked what you said about graduate school, the idealism, the feeling of being overwhelmed, questioning the sanity, oh so true!

    This past year I have read more books with female protagonists than I ever have in the past. It has been enlightening to say the least and I totally get the "learned androgeny" comment regarding all the male heroes and anti-heroes that I had to reaarange my thinking for.

    Great post!

  2. "Still, I most often enjoy reading about people whose lives are different than my own, who live in different cultures, and face challenges that I will most likely never encounter. Their stories and experiences are often universal in a general sense, which is what makes them more easily relatable."

    Me too. Also because reading about them gives me the chance to experience, and thus understand, situations with which I'd probably never have contact in my own life.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Wendy! Like you I care about the characters in the books I read, not only we get the chance to glimpse into their worlds (even if sometimes they're imaginary) but also it shows the authors had done a great job in pulling us into their stories they created. ;)

  4. That's exactly how I feel too each time I get into a story. I became immersed in the character. That probably explains why I cry when a particular scene (happy or sad) touched me. I'm too into it. My family is actually quite worried about me on that aspect but I reassure them I'm normal...

    P/S: I'm in the mood to read non-fiction now. And I also find that sometimes a particular topic resonates with me so much that I it's hard to tear away from the book in hand. For example, Blogging Heroes which I'm currently reading.

  5. I have not been able to read anything. I do feel so ba about it!

    Come to my blog and check out a meme and a giveaway

  6. Jaimie - Thank you! Graduate school definitely was an adventure all its own--and definitely not an easy one.

    It can be quite interesting when we really start looking more carefully at gender roles in books and the like. This also reminded me of how sometimes the way an author writes a character gives away the author's own gender (as if we couldn't tell by the name) and other times it would be impossible to guess if we didn't know.

    Nymeth - That is so true! I think it opens our eyes to all that much more around us. One of the reasons reading fiction is credited with creating more empathetic people, I think. :-)

    Melody - Yes, it definitely is a gift on the author's part to pull us in so well--and connect us to those characters that we may have so little in common with on the surface.

    Alice - I'm like that too, Alice. I can become really attached to characters to the point of crying during the happy and sad times. :-) My husband thinks it's cute. Haha

    I can't wait to hear what you think of Blogging Heroes!

    Gautami - I hope you will be able to get back into reading soon. I am relieved that the Olympics are over so that now I can get back to my regularly scheduled reading again. ;-)

  7. I'd never heard the term "learned adrogony" before but can certainly understand it and have done it. Like you said I think we all put ourselves into the stories we read in some way.

  8. Nat - I knew of the concept of "learned adrogony", but this is the first time I remember encountering the term.


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