OLC Interviews Convention Keynote, Book Critic and Author Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan photo

Maureen Corrigan

If you listen to NPR, then you know Maureen Corrigan’s voice. For more than 20 years, she has been the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air. She is, undoubtedly, America’s most trusted and beloved book critic. The OLC had the opportunity to ask Corrigan a few questions before she kicks off the 2018 Convention and Expo on Oct. 3. This interview is a sneak peek at what her keynote presentation, You’ve Got to Read This Book, will be like.


OLC: How do you choose which books to review?

Corrigan: That’s a question that could take a half hour to answer, but here it goes: I make up a list of forthcoming titles about a season ahead. The list is mostly culled from PW, publishers’ catalogues, and ARCs that I’ve already received. Sometimes, though, people will send me books that they’ve written and very occasionally, I’ll end up reviewing those books (Searching for Tamsen Donner, a wonderful memoir by Gabrielle Burton, was one of those “break through” books sent to me by Gabrielle’s daughter). I then go over that list with my producer, Phyllis Myers. If Terry Gross is interviewing an author, I probably won’t review that book because there’s just so many good books to cover. I’ll usually read the first 50 – 75 pages of a book I’m considering for review. If something about that book doesn’t “grab me” (the voice, subject matter, mood, characters, plot) I’ll probably put it aside and go on to the next book. If, however, the disappointing book in question is highly anticipated and/or by a well-known author, I’ll go ahead with a negative review. Our list changes constantly and is updated week to week. We try “to cover the waterfront” on Fresh Air: non-fiction and fiction; big authors and unknowns; all different kinds of genres and stories.


OLC: What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Corrigan: Oh, there are so many. Let’s see, one that I picked up a couple of years ago was The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett. It had been a rough year — a lot of family illnesses and some deaths — and I just wanted to be in the company of a familiar author. I ended up loving this novel, perhaps even more than any of Patchett’s other, better known novels. The story is so off-the-beaten track and fully realized; the main character so solitary and lovely; the love affair(s) so unexpected. Ultimately it’s a story suffused with possibility–which is just what I needed. I also have a soft spot for Edna Ferber’s So Big, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925, but is largely unread today. If you want a resilient female heroine, read So Big.


OLC: Did you visit the public library when you were growing up? What was your opinion of it? Is it the same today or has it changed?

Corrigan: Yes! I grew up in Sunnyside, Queens, just over the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan and a world away. My family, like most of the families of the kids I grew up with, was blue collar. Buying books was not a regular activity (except for the WWII adventure story paperbacks my father, a big reader himself, would lose himself in every night). I was taken to the Sunnyside Branch of the NYPL pretty much every week and I vividly remember sitting there and turning the pages of a Madeline book. Later on, I remember reading stories about The Holocaust, a biography of John Paul Jones (that must have been my father’s influence), and, of course, Nancy Drew mysteries. I loved them so much that my parents did begin buying those books for me.

I haven’t been inside that branch of the NYPL for decades, but I assume it’s gone through some of the same changes that other libraries have that I’ve visited around the country: lots more space devoted to electronic resources and computers; less space devoted to magazines and books. Also, of course, my old neighborhood branch would now have the challenge of serving a much more diverse population of readers than it did in my childhood.


OLC: How can public libraries get more people interested in reading again? What programs or services can libraries put in place to cultivate a reading habit?

Corrigan: Libraries these days, are doing so much outside the strict “literary” realm and so many librarians are serving as front line social workers and tutors that I hate to suggest other roles/activities for people who are already doing so much. Here are a few thoughts:

I’m inspired by how The National Book Festival in Washington (that I’ve been proud to be a part of for 18 years) comes up with a whole convention center floor’s worth of games and activities for kids that are tangentially related to literature (treasure hunts in which the kids search for Pooh’s honey pot in The Hundred Acre Wood and fun activities like that). Libraries have to be seen as fun and welcoming places for kids in order to cultivate a life-long ease with books. I love the idea some libraries have implemented of having kids with reading challenges read to shelter dogs. Brilliant.

I think young adults, twenty something-ers newly graduated from college, are an important target audience for libraries. Many of my newly graduated students feel a bit disconnected and lonely, especially if they’re in unfamiliar cities on their first job. Not everybody wants to hang out at a bar all the time. I wonder if libraries could do more to cultivate a young adult population–beer and book talk nights/games nights/community service projects. I’m brainstorming here and probably most of these ideas are too corny to be appealing, but I’d love to see more in place for young adults.

Corrigan will kick off the 2018 Convention and Expo with her keynote presentation, You’ve Got to Read This Book! on Wed., Oct. 3 at 10:30 a.m. at the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Sandusky. Please note: the registration deadline is Sun., Sept. 23.

Learn more and register.