What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Very Timely "True Crime"...

Back in 2009, in a case that made headlines throughout Italy, Britain and the United States, 22-year-old transfer student Amanda Knox of Seattle was convicted of the murder of her British roommate in the ancient Italian city of Perugia. On Monday of this week, an appeals court hearing released both her and her boyfriend, Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, after four years behind bars, including a year when both were held in jail without charges. That's the case that Nina Burleigh, author of an intriguing mix of books that include one on the trade in holy relics and another on the adventures of Napoleon's scientists in Egypt, chose to explore for her most recent book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty.

The case has become known as the Amanda Knox case, but as Burleigh convincingly demonstrates in this above-average true crime narrative, it's really about a clash of cultures, legal systems and social mores. The ancient hilltop town of Perugia was already struggling to cope with the impact of the influx of thousands of "foreigners" as students, bar owners and so on, when Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher arrived, independently, to pursue a semester or two of studies there. It's clear that Meredith was the more scholarly and sophisticated of the two; Amanda, younger, flakier, hippie-like, quite content to smoke pot or hash and oblivious to any and all social norms around her, seems to have been one of those girls with a strong personality who never quite fits in with those around her once she is out of her comfort zone, and seems to have no sense of why she might want to do so. That, as Burleigh clearly shows, is one reason why she was in so much trouble so early on with Italian authorities when the brutally-murdered body of Meredith Kercher was found in the house that the two girls shared with two young Italian law students.

Burleigh clearly believed -- even before this week's legal ruling -- that Knox and her boyfriend were innocent, and the evidence she presents as well as her chronicle of the investigation and trial make me very glad that I finished the last 100 pages or so after Monday's ruling. Ultimately, it's a chronicle of the way that many of the major figures in law enforcement -- from the translators to the prosecutors -- were unable or unwilling to look past their own prejudices and preconceptions in the pursuit of justice for Meredith Kercher. Indeed, even with another individual's DNA on the scene -- and with a conviction registered against that person -- the lead prosecutor charged ahead with an incredibly complex, even tortuous, case, apparently bent on proving that the Occam's Razor theory (i.e., when you hear hoofbeats, you think first of horses and only later of zebras) is false. According to the prosecution team -- whose ire was raised first by Amanda Knox's own demeanor and later by the behavior of her family in her defense -- Meredith's murder was the result of jealousy, sex games gone wrong, and myriad other factors. Burleigh deftly moves the story along, even as she happily fails to fall into the breathless tone of most true crime raconteurs. In contrast, she sets the story against the backdrop of Perugia's past and its present, as a still-relatively isolated Italian city struggling to come to grips with the influx of "stranieri", whether resident citizens of African origin speaking perfect Perugian-inflected Italian, or students who are there for a few months to party as much as possible.

In what struck me as a fair analysis, Burleigh portrays Knox as an emotionally stunted 20 year old with very poor judgment who seemed unable to avoid alienating those whom she needed to help her. Ironically, a miscarriage of justice that grew out of a culture clash and biases seems likely only to reinforce those: Burleigh shows how bitter the Knox family and other Americans have become about Italy as a whole (her father, Burleigh notes, has grown to hate anything "old"); the prosecutor, meanwhile, becomes increasingly convinced that some kind of Satanic cult, associated with the Masons, is behind any attempt to examine the evidence critically. Interestingly, that magistrate also features prominently in The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston; when he and his co-author begin to question the magistrate's views of a still-unknown serial killer, his co-author ends up in jail and Preston felt forced to flee Italy. I didn't find that a particularly good book, while this was a much stronger one; perhaps it's the difference between a thriller writer and a historian coming to write about true crime?

If you're curious about the Knox case in light of the publicity surrounding her release, I'd definitely recommend this account. It's not flawless, but it's unbiased and the context is excellent. I didn't end up finding Knox particularly likable and I ended up rather irritable that so much attention has been focused on her at the expense of her equally-innocent Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and the young woman who was unquestionably the ultimate victim, Meredith Kercher. But that's because Burleigh does such a good job of covering the bases; all the major players, including the rather bizarre magistrate, end up as three-dimensional individuals, caught in a web partly of their own making and unable to find a way out. I've given this 3.9 stars.

I received a review copy of the book directly from the publishers.


  1. This sounds like an interesting read. I don't know enough about the case to comment on whether Knox was guilty or not (I hope the correct decision has been made now), but I know that there is some anger here in the UK about how the 'Knox-show' has always sidelined the fact that Meredith Kercher was brutally murdered. It's probably been a very difficult week for her family.

  2. So true, Sam. I ended the book feeling deeply for the Kercher family. And if they have spent years very invested in the idea that the two students were responsible for their daughter's death than it would be far worse. I hope that if I were in the same situation, I'd just want whoever did it to pay as much as possible for the crime and in this case, based on reading this book, I was astonished to find that there is a very strong case against another individual, who IS in jail and serving time for the murder. Another factoid that the "Knox-show" has managed to obscure, ironically. In the Kerchers' shoes, my fury right now would be directed against some of the Italian judiciary for their missteps -- the errors they made that ensured the Knox/Sollecito convictions were "unsafe". Collectively, I think that's made it impossible for the Kercher family to know for sure what really happened, or for Knox to go on and live a normal life. I feel sorry for her Knox's younger sisters, as well -- completely uninvolved in any crime, having to go through this experience and having to defend their sister at every turn. No winners in this at all.