Women Who Write
In 2017 I’m going back to reading ……books.
I read a lot in 2016, but it was mostly news. The political campaign sucked me in daily and I was a consumer of extraordinary amounts of coverage (some of it excellent). I read thousands of words a day, but I wasn’t reading books the way I like to. If I could not get into the first 50 pages of a book in one sitting I would discard it. My fingers were too twitchy for the latest tweet that would take me down the path of commentary and reporting on the endless campaign. I told myself I wanted to escape, but I couldn’t. I, like so many, was addicted to the news.
So it wasn’t like I didn’t read in 2016, it’s just that I didn’t read as much of the variety that I like to read. My reading consumption was out of balance. I wasn’t reading things that helped me escape or entertained me or expanded my mind. I was surrounded by books at home and I’d buy more, but my commitment was not there.
This left me unsettled. I am a reader. A reader of physical books (mostly). A reader of literary fiction. A reader of crime novels. A reader of general non-fiction. A reader of page-turners and airport novels.
In my work as a journalist at ABC News and especially at NPR News I have tried to be a champion of books of all sorts. Books for the general reader. Books not as homework but books for entertainment, for escape, for expanding the mind. Books that provoke, books for fun. I belong to two book clubs. Yes, we talk about the books but we also talk about other things. The books bring us together.
I remember trips to the library as a child growing up in London. When I was really little, my big sisters and I would hop on the bus to the West Hampstead Library on a Saturday. I don’t remember much except that it was bright and the kids section had books like Topsy and Tim and Miffy.
We moved and our local library was around the corner. I graduated to Enid Blyton then Jane Austen and a range of books. I bought many, but also went to the library. It wasn’t until that library was under threat that I truly recognized how important it had been to me growing up.
Zadie Smith wrote about the place of the library in a community, including the library in Willesden, northwest London, which was once home to her (and to me). The library was, indeed, a focal point for me and the place I probably visited most along the High Street growing up. My love of books was undoubtedly cemented because of that library in my life.
I am one of those people who cannot leave the house without something to read (in case I get stuck in an elevator or the train is delayed or something else unforeseen happens which will be made worse if I am bereft of a book.)
A lot of books enter my house. A lot of books join the “shelf of aspirational reading.” Many of us have this shelf. You know, the shelf that carries everything from the “I am dying to read the new book by….(fill in the blank)” to this is the “hot debut novelist that is getting great reviews” or the “I picked this up at the airport, looked great, but I fell asleep on the flight, must pick it up again” book. You have a reasonable chance of getting to these books.
Then there is the “shelf of constant reproach.” A term coined by a former colleague of mine that perfectly describes the big books that everyone talks about then no one actually reads. Books we think we must read for our betterment or because they define the moment. I’m guessing that Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sits on that shelf. Maybe Thomas Pikety’s Capital? In the of world of fiction it might include Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning The Luminaries or Garth Risk Halberg’s City on Fire (I will confess, I’ve read that one), both doorstoppers.
So in 2017 I’m going to read more books. And I’m going to read more books by women. In recent years there has been a movement to increase the coverage of women writers and the number of female bylines across the landscape. The VIDA count is one such effort to examine women’s share of the pie. A recent study has also examined how male and female authors are classified. Stereotypes still abound with regard to what women write about (and read) and what are “male” books.
My rule with our kids was that you could read what you liked. It’s generally a good rule to live by, so why focus on women? Well, I thought I’d do my small part to amplify the diverse range of stories being told by women. The only commonality among the choices is that the authors are women. I have set myself an ambitious goal of writing about one book a week. They aren’t all new. Some may be classics, some may be books I’ve read recently and am only getting around to writing about now. Still others may be revisiting books that read differently with the passage of time. (I reserve the right to slip occasionally, after all there are some great male authors who are publishing this year including George Saunders, Mohsin Hamid and Hari Kunzru and there are only so many hours in the day!)
The reviews are for the general reader. I hope they will pique your interest and remind you that provocative, engaging and interesting stories are being told by the other half of humankind. Civil feedback is always welcome. Recommendations too.