How much comfort can books offer as the death toll rises in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maureen Corrigan responds indirectly in her memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback):
A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan begins a chapter with the line “Books, what a jolly company they are,” by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who saw combat on Western Front in World War I. She adds:
“The line is from Siegfried Sassoon’s great 1918 poem, ‘Repression of War Experience,’ and it’s meant to be taken, at best, ambivalently. The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and the narrator is a World War I vet suffering from shell shock. He’s been shipped away to a rest home in the English countryside, but judging from his off-kilter observations, his prognosis looks bleak. The vet sees ghosts out in the wet darkness of the nearby forest and hears the thud of big guns, booming, booming in the distance. Presumably, he’s sitting in a library as he speaks, because he turns for comfort to the shelves of books nearby. Unfortunately, their black, white, brown, and green spines remind him of his once straight-backed comrades marching off to their deaths. Shaken, the narrator tries to get a grip on his nerves by reassuring himself that ‘all the wisdom of the world / Is waiting for you on those shelves,’ but it’s a claim that rings hollow. Book learning didn’t save a generation of young Oxbridge students from dying in the trenches, along with their shabbily educated working-class countrymen. Indeed, some of those books – filled with tales of chivalric adventure and noble sacrifice – misled their impressionable readers into their wartime deaths.
“I can’t imagine living in rooms without books, but like Sassoon’s narrator, I also think the comfort books offer is qualified. All those voices, all those thoughts, all those reminders of how much there is to read and how little time there is to read it. Mentally and physically, books can be oppressive, even hazardous.”