What I learned from a year of reading women
Do you need a 2015 resolution? Let me offer you the one I took on in 2014 — to only read books written by women. I’m not sure if there was any real reason I took this on, besides that I have a penchant for taking on year-long or culture-based projects (I once took a picture every day for a year, and I’m in the middle of winding down a blog in which I watch and review every James Bond movie) and I’ve identified as a feminist for as long as I can remember. Regardless of why I chose to take on this project, I was far from alone in this pursuit.
Because any resolution worth keeping needs some ground rules, these were mine: I was allowed to read books authored by men if it was chosen by a book club I was participating in, and I was allowed to read books written by anyone if it was closely related to my professional work as an archivist. I allowed myself to finish any male-authored books I had started in 2013. This is what I ended up reading.
What I learned is that if one is conscientious and deliberate about their reading habits, this isn’t anything remotely resembling what I’d call a challenge. To call something a challenge indicates that one must resist their ingrained impulses, that one must learn how to love something that doesn’t come naturally.
In looking at my previous lists of what I read each year, my women vs. man ratio has been all over the place. These have been my rates over the last several years (‘Multiple’ is indicative of works authored by at least one man and one woman, or of an edited work of chapters authored by a number of different individuals).
It’s worth noting that I only ran these numbers as part of writing this blog post, and sitting here and looking at them, I have no idea what to make of them. The only thing that really stands out to me is that I never went below 17% of my reading choices in the last several years for men authors, while in 2010 I did not read anything exclusively written by a woman. For only 3 of the past 6 years did my reading list approach actual population parity.
Only reading women never felt like an intrusive imposition — my general response whenever someone recommended a book written by a man, or when I added a book to my massive to-read list was “Maybe I’ll read it in 2015.” Which I said or thought so often that I want to ensure that I don’t tilt in the other direction where I revert to previous habits and 2015 turns into the year of reading only dudes.
Reading only women over a year could be as easy as cueing up the greatest hits of Women Authors — Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Joan Didion, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Alice Munro, and a bunch of other ladies who I’m going to stop listing because I’m realizing how embarrassed I am that I haven’t read something from all of them.
But if you’re a broad (no pun intended) reader committed to reading works authored by women as opposed to All The Famous Women Authors You’ve Heard Of, ensuring you’re only reading women occasionally presents some interesting situations. Especially in areas of writing that are often heavily male-dominated. And it’s in these areas where only reading women brought me into contact with some stories I might not have encountered otherwise.
One day I was pottering about downtown Cincinnati with some free time and was suddenly struck with the desperate need to pull up at Arnold’s (the only bar in Cincinnati that survived prohibition!) for some food and a beer. I needed some reading material, and stopped by the venerable Ohio Bookstore. Now, Ohio Bookstore is awesome y’all. It’s old, it’s rambling, and you never know what weird things you’re going to find since it’s a used bookstore. It was right around the start of baseball season, and I was so happy to be back for my first Reds season since moving back home. I wanted to read something about baseball.
It turns out that finding books authored by women about baseball is hard. REALLY hard, especially in a used bookstore. The only one I managed to find was the colorfully titled You’ve got to have balls to make it in this league : my life as an umpire by Pam Postema, a former professional female umpire who spent years in the minor leagues and was on the verge of making it into the majors. While it had a lot of shortcomings as a memoir, it was fascinating to read about the massive quantities of misogyny she had to deal with on the job. If I didn’t have the requirement of reading women, I likely would have passed over this (I only saw the title at first, but came back to double-check the author when I didn’t have much luck finding anything else on the shelf).
Likewise, when I was struck with a hankering to read some nature/philosophy writing I wanted to reach for Thoreau’s Walden but did my homework on what woman author would scratch the same itch. I found my way to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was lovely (and much better than The Maytrees which I gave up on).
Every year when I read other folks’ “what they read this year” lists, I get sad because I feel like in comparison I read so little. But this year, I read far more books than I have in previous years. I’m not sure if it’s directly attributable to only reading women, or maybe my love of reading has finally returned after being in hibernation after college & grad school.
I wish I had read from a more diverse group of women — in retrospect my reading choices skewed towards a mostly white, primarily North American demographic. And those words “in retrospect” are key – it’s so easy to realize in hindsight your reading isn’t nearly as varied as you think it is. This is why the Vida counts are so powerful. If you’re not automatically saying “I will read more books from ___ this year” or something similar, then it’s easy to backslide into reading stuff by folks with the most powerful voices in the cultural cannon. I wish I had started off my year with a better consciousness of reading much more widely beyond simply “women”. I think if I had, this would have led to less flinching when I revisited my final list.
As I’ve concluded this year, a lot of folks have asked what my favorite books were. Luckily that’s an easy question. Here they are:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — I have always loved novels about immigrant’s lives and experiences in adjusting to a new country (see also White Teeth and the Buddha of Suburbia). Americanah does this so well, but also looks at a lot of the manifestations of race in the US. Adichie has so many brilliant things to say, and if you like this book, make sure to check out her Ted talks on feminism and the danger of a single story.
Interpreter of maladies : stories by Jhumpa Lahiri — I first started reading this while adjusting to some pretty intense jet lag during the first part of a trip to Israel, and finished it a few months later (the great thing about a short story collection!). Lahiri’s short stories were perfectly paced for waking up in the middle of the night, and while I usually forget a lot of what I read, the vivid imagery in her stories has stayed with me.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed — Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Crest Trail while processing the grief of her mother’s death and her own spiraling life is bad ass to the max, and also made me sob in several parts. It was the most influential thing I read this year, because thanks to reading it I developed a pretty intense interest in hiking, and recently took my first overnight backpacking trip. This is major, as someone who did not grow up in an outdoorsy family. Thanks, Cheryl. (And in case you’re wondering, I just saw the movie adaptation and endorse it.)
Categorised as: life