Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: Meet The Voice Behind NPR Fresh Air’s Book Reviews

Maureen Corrigan grew up loving all sorts of books. After earning her undergraduate English degree and on her way to her Ph.D., she applied for a job as a book critic at what would become one of the most popular radio shows in America.

Maureen Corrigan in a red blazer holding a book by a bookshelf
Maureen Corrigan is the Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism. She is also the book critic on NPR’s Fresh Air.

She was rejected for being “too academic.” But that didn’t hold her back from trying again.

Thirty-five years later, Corrigan is one of the most recognizable radio and podcast voices as the book reviewer for Fresh Air, one of the most popular programs on public radio and a hit NPR podcast. 

On top of reading countless books every year for Fresh Air, she also teaches in the College of Arts & Sciences as the Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism. She is also a prolific writer and has authored two books while regularly writing for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other major media outlets

“I still feel like I’ve got the greatest combination of jobs in the world,” Corrigan said. “I get to go back and read classics like The Great Gatsby every year with my students, and then I get to read the latest books that are coming down the pike.”

Discover how Corrigan found her love of books and became one of the country’s most popular book critics.

Behind the CV: Maureen Corrigan on NPR, Book Reviews, and What Makes a Great Read

My love of reading came: early from my dad, who was a refrigeration mechanic and loved to read. He would come home from work installing refrigeration systems on buildings all over New York City and he would always crack open a paperback, usually an adventure story about World War II since he had been in the war, but also detective novels and some canonical novels. I remember one day when he saw me reading A Tale of Two Cities for school and he said, “That’s a good one.” So that kind of encouragement to read really took root.

The first book that made me upset: was Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch because my mother was set on giving it to a younger cousin and I wanted to keep that book. I was probably around six and I really loved that book because it was about a woman with a lot of children. As an only child I was fascinated by big families.

The summer of 1975 was magical because: One of my wonderful English professors at Fordham, Mary Fitzgerald, took six of us rabid English majors to the Yeats International Summer School. She knew Seamus Heaney, who later won the Nobel Prize, and we kept running into him all throughout that trip in Dublin and Sligo. My memory of that summer is of a time that was enchanted. I met a lot of writers and poets and saw that they were living a life immersed in literature, and I felt that somehow such a life might be possible.

Why I hated my Ph.D program: I went to Fordham University for college and had the greatest professors of my life there, and they inspired me to go ahead for my Ph.D.  I was fortunate to be awarded a fellowship to the University of Pennsylvania, but hated the Ph.D program — although I stuck it out because I wanted to be a professor. I was at Penn during the period when deconstruction and continental critical theory ruled, and I found those ways of talking about books deadening and, now I would say, elitist, too. 

I love to teach because: It’s a lot like opening up a fresh book. You walk into the classroom the first day of the semester, and you don’t know who you’re going to be with for the next few months and what your shared experience is going to be. When a class gels, you really feel, as a professor, that you and your students are all together on a freshly illuminating and, sometimes, unpredictable journey through the material.

I got into reviewing books when: a friend of mine in graduate school asked if I would help her with a take-home editing test for a job she was applying to at the Village Voice, which was back then the greatest alternative newspaper in America. The Village Voice is the newspaper that the Georgetown Voice is named after. I helped her, and as a way of thanking me, she asked if I wanted to try to write a book review for the literary supplement. Writing that review felt like the magic antidote to what I so disliked about academic writing. It was as if somebody gave me a life support system to get through the rest of graduate school. In my reviews I could write about books with enthusiasm and humor and, I hope, intelligence, rather than putting my voice through what I considered to be the “deflavorizing machine” of academic critical theory.

“Writing that review felt like the magic antidote to what I so disliked about academic writing. It was as if somebody gave me a life support system to get through the rest of graduate school.”

Maureen Corrigan

I landed my job at NPR’s Fresh Air because: I had a gig during two summers during graduate school grading AP English exams. I always compare the speed with which we had to grade those essays to the classic scene of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory. The conveyor belt would get faster, and you, as a grader, had to read faster. The system was nuts and immoral. I did an exposé for the Village Voice about that escapade. A producer from Fresh Air called me and asked me to do a much shorter on-air version for the show, and the folks at Fresh Air liked it and asked me if I would like to join as a secondary book critic. John Leonard was the book critic at the time and had a reputation for being very generous to younger writers, and when he eventually left the show, I became the book critic — a position I’ve held for some 35 years and counting. 

Maureen Corrigan holding a bookAfter getting my job on Fresh Air I felt: that I had finally done something that my parents could understand. My parents didn’t really understand grad school — I don’t know that I understood grad school! It meant something to me that my parents somehow approved of what I was doing. I think they finally felt that all this reading was going to turn into something — like a  career.

Reading books every day never gets old: because, while the books I’m considering as a critic may not always be great, they’re always new. Every year there are some books by writers I haven’t read before who are amazing; every year there are books by familiar writers I love who surprise me by going off in new directions. You just never know what you’re going to encounter when you open up a book.

I choose what books to review by: making a master list of what’s coming out at least a season ahead. I probably get at least 25 emails a day from publicists and publishers. I also talk to independent booksellers I know and trust to learn what forthcoming books they are excited about. My current review list changes from week to week. If I feel like I’m getting in a rut or I’m doing a lot of literary fiction, I’ll make a special effort to find some promising non-fiction or genre fiction. If I’m doing a lot of books from major publishing houses written by big-name authors, I’ll try to make a special effort to change up my review list and find an academic or independent press book or something else that’s a little off-road. 

What makes a great book is: if it’s fresh, authentic, conceived out of the author’s soul or imagination; in short, a subject hasn’t been done 5,000 times before or not quite in that same style or voice or form before.

A book I keep coming back to: The Great Gatsby. I’ve read Gatsby well over a hundred times. I learn something new every time I reread it:  that’s one of the marks of a great work of art. Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald himself said, is about aspiration. It’s about reaching with the knowledge that one’s efforts are always going to fall short. And Fitzgerald’s language is so gorgeous. It’s almost unearthly. As other people have said, the last seven and a half pages of The Great Gatsby are the best writing that anybody has ever produced about the promise of America.

In my free time, I gravitate toward: hard-boiled detective fiction. At its best, it’s a form that investigates the underside of American life and society. Detective fiction is also the only literary genre where the act of thinking is at the center of the narrative.  Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the detective story, called his strange new creation “tales of ratiocination” — tales of thinking. How do you make thinking itself engrossing, suspenseful, even sexy? That’s the challenge for detective fiction writers. 

If you asked me how many books I read this year: I couldn’t possibly tell you.