Spoiler Alert: They do go to the lighthouse

I finished To The Lighthouse on Sunday night (or Monday morning if we are being completely honest with one another) and I do not think I would be able to satisfactorily recount its plot to anyone interested in reading Virginia for the first time and do anything but discourage them (please don’t be discouraged.) I can’t really remember what happened in Mrs. Dalloway either, except that she bought flowers herself and there was also a dinner party scene. Septimius Smith hurled himself out of a window sometime during the evening.

What would I tell someone about To The Lighthouse? In the first section of the novel, the Ramsays and their guests do not go to the lighthouse. In the second section, most of the characters you’ve met in the first section are dead. You know this because the house tells you so. This section—Time Passes—is told from the point of view of the house itself during the ten years between the first and third sections of the novel. World War I has taken place and the house, a vacation home in the Hebrides, doesn’t know what to call the conflict but a “downpouring of immense darkness”—describing it throughout like an oncoming storm. The house has the right idea. Reading this section, it’s not difficult to see why Woolf filled her pockets with rocks in 1941 and waded out into the middle of the Ouse to drown. How could you do anything else, seeing what was coming having known what already happened? [NOTE: I’m doing the thing I hate here. I hate it when readers make a writer’s work about her life. For this reason, I hate most analysis of Sylvia Plath. I promise this is secondary. I’m not doing it to tidy up the work or explain it away or make it less of a work of art.]

The remaining characters, Mr. Ramsay and two of his remaining adult children, Cam and James, finally make it to the lighthouse in the third section and their returning houseguest, Lily Briscoe, finally finishes a painting she’s been thinking about painting for a decade. None of this is what the book is about but most people want a plot summary when they ask “what’s it about?” about a book you’re reading.

No one reads Woolf’s novels for the plot. No one reads modernist literature for the plot. Quick, what’s the plot of Ulysses? Exactly.

If someone were to ask me what To The Lighthouse is about, I would tell them it is about the ways in which we need and are needed. Mr. Ramsay, a philosophy professor needs his wife’s emotional support while he struggles to complete his next work, afraid his genius has left him. Their young son, James, hates his father for interrupting his time with his mother—hate as pure as only a small child can produce [NOTE: in my copy, whoever owned it before me has written “Freudian” in the margins of this exchange. There are two notes in the novel not written by me and they both refer to Freud. I would like to know who owned this book before me.] James needs his mother to himself. A wish that can’t possibly be fulfilled with seven siblings, a needy father, and houseguests. James would also like to go to the lighthouse, but the weather is bad and Mr. Ramsay says no. Elsewhere, Mrs. Ramsay wants a moment alone after all the children have gone to bed when she does not need to think about anyone but herself. She would like to give the illusion of sitting in a room and knitting, but really she in her head entirely with herself. Girl, wouldn’t we all (see again: eight kids, that husband, and guests)…She also wants dinner to go well and maybe for Lily Briscoe to settle down. Lily would like to paint rather than get married.

…is Woolf Lily? I’m not supposed to ask this question. People who have gone to graduate school are not supposed to suggest one of the main characters is really just a stand-in for the author…even if Stephen Dedalus is definitely James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway is Frederic Henry. I know Woolf loved to throw a good dinner party and I’m sure she understood Mr. Ramsay’s fear that one might be out of good books…but she’s definitely Lily, right? Certainly, Lily’s impulse to create, even if the painting ends up forgotten in an attic, even if Charles Tansley stands behind her—too close—and tells her women can’t paint, can’t write. Why else would he have said they cannot write when Lily is not writing? These passages with Lily alternately fretting about her work and declaring herself an artist have the tone of an artist’s statement. She is telling herself who she is as an artist, even before she paints. The novel ends when she completes her painting. The last line, “I have had my vision.” She gets the moment, in a way, Mrs. Ramsay longed for. She helps Woolf get what she wants too.

This novel is preoccupied with legacy—Mr. Ramsay’s, Mrs. Ramsay’s, Lily’s—- with what passes and is left behind. The house is forgotten for a decade. Characters die (really, millions upon millions of people died in the decade between the novel’s first and third parts.) Other characters disappear (of the Ramsays six remaining children, only Cam and James are mentioned in the third section of the novel.) When Mrs. Ramsay, spooning out a second helping of bouef en daube for William Bankes, she looks at her family, husband, and guests quietly eating and feels at peace—

there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change…Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

Of course, we know it does not. The dinner party ends. The war comes.

Mrs. Ramsay opens that passage before ladling soup and asks herself “But what have I done with my life?” Lily echoes her at the end of the novel, asking,

what is the meaning of life?…the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here.’ Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)—this was the nature of the revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing[.]

The perfect boeuf en daube on a rainy day in which no one goes to the lighthouse must qualify as a match in the dark. Order and pleasure in a day on which no one really gets what they want otherwise. That evening exists for the characters still alive a decade later. Lily seems to think Mrs. Ramsay’s legacy was her children—her use of sphere here is telling, Woolf reminding the reader of 19th-century notions of domesticity and a woman’s supposed place. Woolf avoids that sphere (except to write about it) and so does Lily (except to paint it.)

The novel isn’t a simple rejection of domesticity. It’s not a diatribe. Mrs. Ramsay is portrayed lovingly by Woolf and loved by Lily. But Lily ultimately makes her own life as she makes her own art for herself. “I have had my vision” she says at the end of the novel. Not a vision. My vision. Woolf, the writer, bought a printing press with her husband in order to remove the commercial stumbling blocks to publication. Without the restraint of needing to appease as publisher, Woolf was free to experiment. She had her vision too.

I worried throughout reading that I didn’t have the mental energy for Woolf. It’s easy to be exhausted right now. I would have to re-read sections. There’s no skimming a modernist. This isn’t a book you read in snippets, waiting in line or for a few minutes before bed. The prose is clear, but not straightforward. It requires something of you. I can’t remember the last book made me work this hard—The Female Man, perhaps. But the book isn’t forbidding. I don’t want to warn you off of it. It’s a good book. You should read it. You just have to want to do the work. This book is worth the work.

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Making my bookshelves resemble my brain.

 

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The bookshelf in progress. While it was still light out.

 

A couple weeks ago, I pulled every book off my shelves. I do this from time to time. (I did it yesterday with my clothes. A therapist has suggested this is a coping mechanism, but a perfectly safe and non-destructive one.) Usually, I put everything back in the same basic order—moving a handful of books to a pile to donate or recycle or read next. Usually, I separate out the fiction, poetry, plays, and put each back on the shelf in alphabetical order by author then I break the non-fiction down by subject—I have a lot of books on literary theory and feminism and only two that could be properly called science. I own more than one book about women in Puritan New England. Mostly, I do this to do something on a day I cannot sit still. That morning, I’d already done about a half-hour of yoga and gone for a run. The apartment was clean and my laundry was done. This is about when a normal person would sit down and watch all the Harry Potter movies or read a book. Some days that’s exactly what I might have done but I couldn’t. Instead, I made another cup of coffee and I pulled everything down. But I didn’t just throw everything back on the shelf in alphabetical order this time.

After moving books from pile to pile around the living room for a couple hours, I put the books I own about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in a pile with their poetry. The Confidence Man and The Scarlet Letter got stacked with The Whale, a novel premised on the theory that Melville and Hawthorne were lovers. Frederick Douglass, Emerson, and Thoreau made it on that shelf too. So did Eric Foner and Lincoln in the Bardo. I shelved Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea with Madwoman in the Attic and then put all the other books by 19th-century women writers I own next to them. Margaret Atwood is all over the wall—Canadian writers, environmental dystopia (along with one of my two “science” books, novels that use a dramatic drop in the birth rate as a plot point (I have three of those.)  Steinbeck gets his own section. So does Joyce. Poe ends up in Horror, but I could have just as easily grouped him in Southern Fiction. Shelving all the Americans together means Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway get a lot closer (that could get uncomfortable for Lauren Groff and Dashiell Hammett.) Some of the categories are easy—short story collections, science fiction, Russian literature. Some, like the aforementioned section of speculative fiction where no one can get pregnant, only makes sense if you think like me.

When I was very young, I arranged books on my shelf by height. I don’t know why I did it—to hide my chaos under a veil of order, however false— but I remember staring at the tops of two spines trying to figure out which of these two approximately identical books was taller. One summer, I put everything on the shelf by color, but I lost a lot of books because I couldn’t remember what color the spine was. I lost books on my shelf when I put everything in alphabetical order. I started keeping a list of all the books I own on my phone because I so frequently bought duplicates. I don’t think in height or color or the alphabet. I think in ideas. That sounds inane but I remember stories and concepts and conversations. It’s harder for me to remember in images unless those images tell me a story or point me in a particular direction. This way of making connections served me well in graduate school and is less effective when I am at the grocery store by myself and without a list. When I was writing a paper, I’d start pulling plot points and theories out of my head to coalesce into a thesis about masculinity and drag and ways of passing in Middle Eastern and North African literature or compulsory motherhood and whiteness in The Handmaid’s Tale and how that was mirrored in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential platform. When I’m getting ready to go out, I will start to tell myself a story about the woman wearing my clothes—She’s a French ex-pat who doesn’t understand why American women own so many cardigans. She’s my old elementary school art teacher—complete with the flowered smock and wooden clogs. She is vastly overdressed for this safari. (That said, I didn’t fundamentally rearrange my closet. Everything is still organized by category and color.)

I know where everything is now—the books I’ve read and the (many) I still need to read—because my shelves look more like the inside of my brain. I might actually make some progress on the Unread Shelf Project now (only two of the nine books I’ve read this year belong to me and I just gave one of them to the library.) New books coming in can’t immediately get shelved in this new system. I will have to read a lot of them first to know where they belong. I don’t know what I will do in a couple months when I get this feeling again. Hopefully, I’ll just go for a run instead.

 

I may have overestimated how much I wanted to read Russian literature in 2017

 

art by Zachery Redden

Art by Zachery Redden

 

This year’s syllabus was a colossal failure. I never cracked open a book about Islam or an epic fantasy or an urban fantasy. I did start a book about the Holocaust and the Grant biography I am about halfway through does touch on Reconstruction. By May, I abandoned the list altogether. Looking at it now, I only accidentally completed some tasks because they were in categories I tend to read anyway. That’s fine with me. I still had a decent reading year. As of December 31st, I’ve read 51 books—better than some years, not as good as others. The goal of the syllabus was to keep me out of a book rut and, more importantly, to get me to read more broadly —whether that meant genres I’d previously avoided, books I’d deemed too intimidating to tackle outside an academic setting, or people underrepresented on my shelves. Looking back at the books I actually read this year, I expected to see a lot of “escapist” reads and they’re certainly there. I listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audio. I read a fair amount of historical romance, but significantly less than I read the year before. I still sought out challenging, difficult work. Lincoln in the Bardo and The Female Man both defy regular narrative structure. Tell Me How It Ends explores the migrant experience using the questions asked of unaccompanied children facing deportation. I listened to Sherman Alexie recount his complex relationship with his mother and Roxane Gay chronicle her complex relationship with her own body.* By the time I got around to reading Human Acts and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wasn’t thinking about checking boxes. I tracked down the Hamid because of the story’s narrative structure and I read Kang because I’d loved The Vegetarian. Looking back through my reading year, it was profoundly female but still very white. This is a problem I will probably continue to have but I am going to keep trying to course-correct.

I’m not doing this again next year. I don’t have specific quotas or particular books to check off a long list. I’m not going to worry about reading regionally. I think (I hope) I can read broadly without checking boxes if I just remain mindful. I plan to keep a physical book journal to help with that (one of the problems with averaging a book a week is that sometimes I forget I’ve read a book. I hope writing down my thoughts as I muddle along will alleviate that.) The syllabus, for all its strengths, focuses on breadth over depth. Doing a deep dive into the works of Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich doesn’t undermine the ultimate goal of my reading life—to live lives outside of my own—but I can’t follow a whim if I am worried about checking every box on an arbitrary syllabus. The syllabus helped me change the way I think about the books I read and it got me reading more when I wasn’t reading enough. It’s a valuable tool if you’re at all concerned about your own reading habits but I don’t think I need it right now.

I only have 6 guidelines for reading in 2018:

  1. Read one big (scary) book. This year, I didn’t read any of the books I’ve been putting off for one reason or another. I try to tackle one behemoth a year, but I didn’t in 2017. I have a few contenders already on my shelf: 100 Years of Solitude, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Underworld, 2666, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Any of them would be an accomplishment…or I could finally get around to Tolstoy, but probably not.
  2. Read more books by people who are not like me. I am college-educated, straight, white lady from the east coast. There are a lot of writers like me. I like seeing where I fit, but you can’t just do that by mirroring your own experience. Reading things by people who aren’t me could mean taking into account an author’s gender or race or sexual orientation or political ideology or religion (or lack thereof) or home state or home country. I don’t get to travel much, but I can read.
  3. Read fewer books by men. I’ve read 10 books by men this year. Seven of those men were white and from the US. Most of my education was spent reading books by white men from the US. I don’t think I’ll be missing out if I never get around to The Corrections.
  4. Read more poetry and short stories. I don’t know when I stopped actively seeking out new poetry, but I only read one collection this year (milk & honey.) I did not read any short stories. There was a time when my reading was almost exclusively poetry and short fiction.
  5. Read more books about writing. I tried unsuccessfully to kickstart my own writing habit throughout this year. Maybe it’s time to go back to school, so to speak.
  6. Read books I already own. The Japanese word, tsundoku, describes the tendency to buy books and allow them to pile up in one’s house, unread. I have 678 books right now. I have not read 361 of them. This number doesn’t bother me as much as it probably should, but it is a little surprising (I guess I borrow more books from the library than I thought?) I know I bought a lot of books this year because I buy books, bath bombs, and face masks when I am stressed or anxious. I maintain this is better than buying a lot of candy or drinking to excess but it still results in a fair amount of clutter and a lighter wallet. I’m not going to stop buying books in 2018, I know better than to make that pledge. I’m not going to stop checking out books from the library either because I am fairly certain patronage numbers are taken into account when allocating money to the library and I like my libraries funded, but I am going to make a concerted effort to clear out some of my backlog. I’m not very good at getting rid of books (I actually like to look at the piles), but I cleared up some space on the shelves today (I was never going to read Pillars of the Earth or the Sagas of the Icelanders.) I’m even taking the books to Goodwill and not the local used bookstore where they’d invariably be exchanged for more books. After helping my mom clean and reorganize her bookshelves last week and telling her repeatedly that she had to cull her stacks if she expected everything to fit on the shelf, I can’t very well let mine go to pot. It would be hypocritical and I’d never hear the end of it.

2017 Reading Syllabus, final tally:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi: Female Man by Joanna Russ
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
    • Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
    • Living Middle Eastern Author: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
    • Living Asian Author: by Han Kang
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness:
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust:
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection: milk & honey by rupi kaur
    • a STEM book

*In the last couple years, I started listening to memoirs when they are read by the author. I cannot recommend this practice enough.

Echoing Roxane Gay, Maybe We Should Put Men in Rice…

Last week, while out of town for work, I accidentally struck up a conversation with a man behind me in line to get coffee. I am a person who requires coffee before coffee and had just a few minutes before my co-worker would meet me in front of the lobby and we’d take a shuttle to the convention center serving as our office for the week. I did not mean to talk to this man but I am my mother’s daughter and sometimes I cannot stop myself from being friendly. I would rather not be. It’s much safer for women to be polite, but distant. The conversation was innocuous and I left with my coffee, sat down at a nearby table, and waited for my co-worker. When the man I’d just talked to walked by my table, I worried he’d want to continue our chat—it had been about our mutual addiction to caffeine and the times we’d both tried to quit. I was worried that my friendliness had been seen as transactional. I was worried my male co-worker would be late coming down from his hotel room. I worried the man wouldn’t leave me alone if I continued to be polite out of a sense of self-preservation. I worried no one would come to my aid even if my male co-worker showed up. He might not want to get involved. My male co-worker is much smaller than that man. My male co-worker is smaller than me. I also worried because I’m actually more likely to be attacked by my male co-worker if we are alone together. Familiarity and friendliness make me less safe.  All of this took place in my head the 15 seconds it took the man to walk by my table, nod at me, and go on his way. I could have spent those 15 seconds more productively if I didn’t have to constantly negotiate my own survival.

I’m telling you this story because nothing happened. The man walked by, my co-worker arrived, we left for the convention center. You don’t have the right to the stories where something did happen. I don’t really want to tell you the stories about things that almost happened, mostly because there is just too many of them—an adult man stopping me at a bookstore in high school because he wants to know if I would like a boyfriend when I am still young enough that I had never had a boyfriend. Boys, and then men, taking advantage of any crowded space (a high school hallway between classes, a concert when I am standing next to one of my brothers, a bar during a hockey game, a metro car.) Any number of men from any number of cars from the time I was about 13 until just this morning when I went out for a run.

I wish I could say I was surprised by the allegations against Al Franken anymore than I’m shocked Roy Moore approached so many girls at the man he was allegedly banned from it. I was disappointed in Franken, certainly. But I know better than to think a history of public support for women precludes reprehensible behavior. Anymore, I am skeptical of men who are too quick to volunteer themselves as public feminists. I have to wonder if their support is transactional too. I have to wonder what it’s like to be in a room alone with them. Having said that, the solution isn’t in Mike Pence’s self-imposed isolation from all women to whom he is not currently married. It still assumes what school dress codes assume about the female body, even in prepubescence—that it is too tempting to be near. It assumes the female body is corrupting and men have no self-control. It makes female bodies simultaneously powerless and all-powerful while absolving men of any responsibility for their own actions. Every woman you know has been made to feel like her body is responsible for someone else’s actions. I’m reminded of an interview Louis C.K. gave on The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was still the host. Louis says that comedians and feminists are natural enemies. Stewart nods his head in agreement. This was back when only Gawker was running stories about the allegations against Louis and they were blind items that did not mention him by name. It was before Stewart expressed shock that Louis might masturbate in front of an unwilling woman. I don’t have the luxury of shock anymore. There are jokes I used to tell and jokes I used to laugh at that I don’t anymore because there is something about being a woman in the world that erodes your sense of humor. I started to see these jokes a way for men to gauge what they could get away with with me. They wanted to know if I was a cool girl, if I’d be accommodating. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a bitch. I am definitely a bitch. When I realized I was the means by which men were absolving themselves, their jokes got less funny. When Al Franken mimed groping a sleeping woman’s breasts (after forcibly kissing her when she was awake), someone took a picture. He was posing for people who probably laughed and were not thinking about exposing him later. They didn’t expose him. The woman did.

Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s been impossible to pretend I live in a country that values women. Hell, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump after any number of stories came out about his own history of sexual violence, probably because they know (whether they say it or not) it’s much easier to be white in this country than it is to be a woman. Being a woman means you are always responsible, despite lacking real autonomy. When I meet new people, I have to wonder if they voted for him. I have to take the time to evaluate whether the person with whom I am interacting values women so little they were willing to vote for a man like Donald Trump. It takes up my time and my energy. I resent the added work. Getting coffee in the morning is already exhausting enough.

In which I am very bad at relaxing…again.

All of the books I read over summer breaks in middle and high school dried to a mild wave along the bottom edge. Magazine ink transferred to the underside of my wrist, my forehead or, at least once, my stomach when I was finally allowed to wear a two-piece. I pretty thoroughly trashed a copy of The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood*, resting it against my thighs and stomach, covered in sweat and sunblock and chlorine. The back cover puckered and peeled off, but I didn’t take any steps to protect the book. I don’t have it anymore. I finished it at some point during the summer and set it on the shelf. Eventually, it had to be recycled. It was in no state to be given away. Even the books from back then I’ve kept I couldn’t reasonably hand off to anyone new. Jane Eyre, pressed for years on a packed shelf, still curls a bit…just a bit. I read most of that book working in the snack bar for my brother after he had to get stitches in his foot. I didn’t do a lot of swimming that week. I drank Dr. Pepper and ate packet after packet of ToastChee Crackers and read.

I spent hours at the pool in the summer, with friends but often enough without them. I’d throw a book, a towel, and my Walkman in a backpack and head out. Most of the time, I remembered to bring sunblock but the tan lines that peaked out from under tee shirts were usually still visible in school pictures in October. By August, the exposed parts of my body were a dense network of freckles. I wasn’t worried about sunburns or skin cancer or even having to buy a different shade of foundation.

On Tuesday, Zac and I went down to the pool and I lasted about 45 minutes. Not even long enough to reapply sunblock (except I did reapply it to my shoulders, shins, and feet.) I swam around until the whistle blew, then hopped out and toweled off. I judiciously held my library book away from my thighs and my stomach, but the sun reappeared and my shoulders got hot. All the umbrellas had been appropriated by much more diligent pool-goers who’d arrived when it opened. I don’t know when our pool opens. I see these women when I’m walking Bagel. They have dedicated pool bags and wear short caftans like they are going somewhere much fancier than an apartment complex pool. I’d just emptied out my regular tote bag and threw on mesh shorts and an old tee shirt. I don’t even have a beach towel anymore. I should probably get a beach towel. These women are all very good at doing nothing. Some of them didn’t even get in the water while I was there. It didn’t look like they’d been in the water that day. Some of them had books or were there with friends. Some of them had just lain down and not gotten back up again. I watched them the way my pets sometimes watch me while I read or sit at the computer. It’s probably why I didn’t make much headway in my book.

I spent hours at the pool growing up doing exactly what those women were doing—nothing. I did nothing in the pool and then I got out during breaks and I did nothing until the whistle blew again. I did nothing while absent-mindedly singing along to Jane’s Addiction and the Toadies playing over the pool intercom. The Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably got so gnarly-looking because it didn’t always leave my backpack. Sometimes it just got shoved further down when I restored my soggy towel and biked back home to get ready for ballet. If it rained, I did nothing at home.

On Tuesday, I lasted 45 minutes. I came home, ran a load of laundry and re-read an article on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. The Times had changed the title from earlier in the day and I didn’t notice until a couple paragraphs in that I’d already read it once. We took Bagel to the dog park when the rain stopped, then I gave her a bath after dinner. I think I fell asleep sometime after midnight. I couldn’t sleep and had started watching a David Attenborough special on Netflix. Aphids reproduce asexually. Platypi were originally thought to be a hoax. This was all nothing too, but it doesn’t luxuriate the way a poolside nap does. Even the late-night Netflix in bed was less treat than prescription.

I don’t bring up any of this looking for correction. I know me. I’m never going to enjoy the pool again the way I did when I was 12 or 14 or 15. That kid was perfectly content to listen to Fiona Apple’s first album over and over. She’d borrowed it from her older brother when he wasn’t home and copied it to a cassette. She didn’t have bills. She’d barely had her period. She wasn’t even all that worried that she might get to the end of the summer without having completed the assigned reading. I still haven’t finished Cold Mountain. I sprained my ankle the summer that was required and still managed to avoid finishing it. I think I read Fight Club, The Exorcist, and Guerrilla Warfare instead. I still have that copy of Guerrilla Warfare. I highlighted the instructions for building a tank trap to mess with my mom, but I don’t think she thought to check. I know she found that copy of The Exorcist. It disappeared from under my bed and we never discussed it.

If I hadn’t spent last Tuesday reading about ICBMs, I would have spent the day reading about healthcare or the Russia investigation or just feeling bad because I need to vacuum and I forgot to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer and if it sits too long, I’m just going to have to wash it again and if I’m just going to start wasting water, I might as well not turn off the shower when I shave or deep condition either.

I’ll go back to the pool. Not today, though, it’s raining and I really do need to vacuum. But I’ll go soon. I might get a fun towel first.

May Update: Abandon all hope…

It’s almost June and I have crossed off exactly one requirement on my reading syllabus. It’s safe to assume I might not get this done this year. According to Goodreads, I am, at 15 books, four books behind schedule if I am going to get through 50 books this year. Four of those books are the Harry Potter series on audio. Not included on that list is Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which I’ve been re-reading on nights I cannot fall asleep. This isn’t to say I haven’t been reading. I have subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. I catch myself reading the same articles in the morning Post that I read online the night before (yes, I get the daily paper in print. I also have a landline, recently purchased stamps, have bar soap in my shower, and write longhand in cursive. I am an old millennial.)

This isn’t the sort of reading I enjoy. It’s not the sort of reading I should really do before bed or having my blood pressure taken.  This is the sort of reading that makes me check the time stamp at the top of an article before skimming it for the fifth or sixth time for new information about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s the sort of reading I measure out in hash marks, thinking that counting out the number of times I check Twitter or that stupid news widget to the left of my home screen might convince me to just keep the phone in the other room. So far, it has not worked. Neither has turning off notifications. The other day I went for a short run only to notice the flag of the local parochial school at half-mast. I stopped my run to check the Washington Post app. I checked the Times and Twitter for good measure. I still don’t know why the flag was at half-mast.

Even now, I’m getting a little itchy and my chest is hot. When I am done writing this sentence, I will check my phone again…

President Trump asked senior intelligence officials to deny collusion between the campaign and Russia. Sounds about right for a Monday evening.* Right now, I can’t muster the energy to be appropriately horrified or even surprised. Tomorrow, there will probably be another story about the president attempting to quash the Russia investigations in a way only a routinely guilty party might. It may be the country’s good fortune that he appears to be at least as incompetent as he is nefarious.

But this sort of reading—skimming article after article in an effort to better understand what “throw-weight” means or the distinction between ballistic missiles categories or how Robert Mueller’s role as “special counsel” is not as secure from Trump administration meddling as Ken Starr’s role as “independent counsel” was from the Clinton administration because a statute has lapsed—isn’t reading. I am not served by knowing what I know, at least not in the manner in which I am learning it.

“[R]eading as a means of understanding and resistance” was an excellent idea on January 1st, when I hadn’t started doing this. I wasn’t tired yet. Right now, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and The Federalist Papers are all sitting unread on the stack of books I keep next to my reading chair. I’m probably not getting around to The Painted Bird or On The Beach anytime soon. I can’t seem to get through more than a chapter or two of Lincoln in the Bardo before dozing off at night and Alyssa Mastromonaco’s memoir of her time in the Obama administration is due back to the library in a few days. I haven’t even cracked the spine yet.**

What I’ve been doing looks enough like reading that I can trick myself into thinking it is. It’s not surprising I don’t have the patience or energy for book-length reading. I’ve only exercised that muscle 15 times this year. Almost everything is harder the less you do it. The not-quite-reading I have been doing feels enough like reading that I don’t even always realize I’ve set aside my book for my phone until I’ve already read a couple articles.

Saturday, I largely did not check my phone. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t keep busy with an endless series of chores that feel like being productive but are not. Instead, I sewed a pillow and two foot stools my dog will no doubt claim as her own within a week. It took me hours and I screwed up spooling the bobbin three times before I figured out what I was doing wrong. They all look fine from far if you don’t pay very close attention to the finishing and I am fairly certain the one I filled with bean bag balls only has one small hole that needs fixing. I didn’t check the news most of the day because I cannot sew one-handed and sewing machines are loud enough to drown out a lot of thought. I played old episodes of The Simpsons in the background to drown out the rest of them. In a lot of ways, sewing’s probably a better hobby for me to have right now. I’m not good enough at it that I can get away with not paying particular attention to what I am doing. It takes two hands. Unlike writing, I know when a pillow is finished.

I want to read. Abandoning the syllabus doesn’t stop me from reading, but it frees me from spending more time thinking about Russia. I’ll finish the Saunders soon, and the Mastromonaco. I might even get to the Snyder—it’s a very short book—but I don’t see myself getting around to anything by Masha Gessen in the immediate future. I may never get around to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel about radiation from a nuclear war reaching the shores of Austrailia. But I have a bunch of poly-fill left, and some vintage fabric and notions my mom gave me still in the Woodward and Lothrop’s bag (the bag also included a photocopied handout from LaLeche League because my mother rarely throws anything away.) Maybe I’ll even make a dress or two if I can find a simple enough pattern—I’m not ready for sleeves, darts, or zippers yet. An apron. I’ll make myself a new apron. Mine all have cake stains on them.

*I wrote this bit before news broke about the explosion at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I’ve actively chosen not to write about it because, while it’s easy to speculate, I have no idea what happened yet and I’m not going to make the deaths of kids at a concert about my anxieties. That would be indecent.

*I don’t really do that to library books.

50 Strands of Gray

On a particularly nice fall day during my senior year, I met with my thesis advisor on a bench between Radford’s library and science building. Ostensibly, these meetings were to make sure my research was progressing, but more often than not our conversations drifted. That day, in the middle of whatever he was telling me about gay whales, Tim stopped and asked me if I was aware there were gray hairs on my fucking head (I’m paraphrasing, but Tim definitely swore. Tim usually swore a handful of times during these meetings. Tim routinely swore a handful of time during class.) I was, and still am, a woman of reasonable sightedness in possession of a mirror and an overhead light. I was aware. I might have asked if he was aware he was similarly afflicted. The difference, of course, was that I was a woman and 22. He was not. The next time we met, he asked me if I was aware my hair was aubergine in the right light. The box had read “Egyptian Plum” but “eggplant” wasn’t a totally incorrect descriptor. I’ve been dying my hair out of perceived necessity about every two months since.

I think I found my first gray in high school. I plucked it immediately and told no one. My relationship with my own body has been a little adversarial. I felt, and routinely still do, out of place in my own body most of the time—slightly too tall, slightly too thin then slightly too doughy, with too-large eyebrows and feet and too-small lips, too many freckles and acne that didn’t seem to trouble my brothers nearly as much (I also don’t recall any of them worrying about their eyebrows, but I could be wrong. At least one of them was concerned enough about eyebrows to attempt to eliminate my burgeoning unibrow. Mom caught us, probably for the best since Micah was going after it with a safety razor and some mentholated Barbasol which I do not recommend getting that close to your eyes.)

In my very early 20s, hiding my grays seemed easier than answering questions about them. I am no more equipped to answer the question “why do you have gray hair?” than I am “why are you so tall?” or “why do you have such long toes?”—all questions I have been asked at one point or another (exclusively by men, by the way. Don’t do that.) It is how my body is and I wasn’t given a choice in the matter,  though it is nice reaching the top shelf and those toes came in handy, both on the swim team and in dance class. I can also pick up socks off the ground without bending over (#blessed.)

For years, dying my hair felt like a reasonable use of my time. Sure, I’ve spent well over $1,000* and countless hours holed up in questionably ventilated bathrooms. I’ve ruined more than one towel, a handful of beloved over-sized concert tee shirts, and (I will admit since she is reading this and will point it out if I do not) my mother’s fancy shower curtain. I have dyed my ears, my cheeks, my forehead, and my neck while missing whole sections of my head. I’ve only avoided dying any pets because I won’t allow them into the bathroom. I don’t want them inhaling toxins. I’ve only had it professionally done twice. It was beautiful both times, but that dollar amount would be much, much higher and it wouldn’t have saved me any time. Only mess.

So, I’m done. Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. The average white woman starts to see grays around age 35. I am 31 for the next month, but I’ve always thought of myself as a little above-average, a little ahead of the curve. I’m not making a grand stand against fascist beauty standards. I’m not going get my hair cut into a more utilitarian hairstyle or stop shaving my armpits or forego wearing makeup (not when I just picked up this bomb-ass highlighter and might have finally figured out contouring!)—not that there is anything wrong with doing any of that. None of this (or anything else I listed BTW) is necessarily a feminist statement. Right now, it just makes sense to give up something I do to myself largely out of a sense of obligation to other people who probably don’t care nearly as much as I have assumed they do. But I am also the same insecure girl I was at 14 and 18 and 22. I drink significantly less soda now and have that unibrow under control, but I am no less concerned about the way I look when I am out in the world. Giving this up is harder than giving up Diet Coke. I was pretty sure the Diet Coke was giving me migraines and no one asks me, unprompted, about how long I’ve drunk Diet Coke or how long it’s been since I’ve since I’ve had one.

When it all goes, I'm dying it lavender. I don't care if it isn't cool anymore.

Well, I still have less white hair than Bagel.

People (men) like to give people (women) unsolicited advice on how they look or how they might improve their appearance. I am already dreading the first time that happens. Years ago (maybe four or five) a co-worker told me he liked the way my grays were starting to come in and I should think about just letting them go.  I’d been worried that my hair was starting to look really processed and I’d been extra gentle with it, which was the only reason I had not already covered the grays coming in. But in that moment, my hair was no longer mine. Suddenly, it belonged to that guy and whatever I did to it next wasn’t fully my choice. I might have dyed my hair that night. I might have had a false choice, but I was going to use that false choice to tell that guy to fuck off.

…“But Meredith, I’m a guy with opinions. Are you telling me I can’t ever tell women what I think of her appearance?” If you’re asking this question—yeah, that is exactly what I am telling you. If you read this whole thing and that’s what you’re taking away, you should probably keep those opinions to yourself, full stop. We also don’t need to know what you think about the 2016 election, the wage gap, or gender-swapped movie reboots.

Not spending a little under $30 every two months isn’t going to make me debt-free (that money will just go to my wine or cheese or book budget) and I will probably find other ways to waste that time. But this feels right right now. If you see me about in a couple months and my hair is almost pitch-colored all the way through, you’ll know I caved and we won’t talk about it because you know better now, right?

*My hair is typically long enough that I have to buy two boxes. At around $14 a box, 6 times a year, for 9 years= $1,512 and it could be so much worse.

February Update: no new white dudes

Years ago, I remember a man telling me—this was a friend or acquaintance, I can’t remember who (and wouldn’t say if I could), but it was definitely a man— that someone couldn’t call themselves a fan of Kurt Vonnegut if their favorite Vonnegut novel was Slaughterhouse-Five. This is the sort of information women don’t volunteer to me about any author (or director or musician…) It seems I am not a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read other books by him, but Slaughterhouse-Five remains my favorite. Mother Night, though I’ve only read three other novels by him, would not make the top five. It’s not the novel’s fault, really. I should have known better than to read it right now.

I went to the library after work a couple of weeks about to rectify a particularly crappy Thursday. Someone had quoted the book earlier in the day talking about Internet trolls using racism or sexism to attack people: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” The novel’s protagonist is a man by the name of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who is being tried as a Nazi war criminal for his propagandist radio programs. Campbell claims, though he cannot prove it until the novel’s end, that he was working for the U.S. the entire time. He used his radio show to send coded messages. Campbell maintains throughout his telling that his only real allegiance was to his wife, Helga and that he was never a political person…as if opposition to the aims of the Nazis can be called political.

As I read, news reports came in of bomb threats at Jewish community centers and schools around the country. Headstones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled in the middle of the night.  I had a hard time negotiating Vonnegut’s winking distance in light of this. There is a kind of book magic that happens when you pick up the book you urgently need to read in a particular moment. Everything clicks into place and you understand yourself or the world a little better. The opposite is also true. Maybe I’d like this book more Donald Trump had lost the election and Richard Spencer hadn’t set up shop so close to where I live.

This is all to say that I’m done forever with speculative Nazi fiction, whether it imagines the world if Hitler prevailed or tries to ferret out a “good German.” I’m not interested in softening Nazis. There is a book on my desk right now by Timothy Snyder called Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’ll read that. It feels necessary.

It feels equally urgent that I shift my reading life away from white dudes. I still have to read William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy this year. I’m pretty sure Timothy Snyder is a white dude too. There is a high likelihood that the book I read on Reconstruction will be by renowned white dude, Eric Foner. It’s also pretty hard to avoid white dudes when reading epic fantasy and pre-Soviet Russian literature. But that’s still less than 10 white dudes and last year I read around 75 books. I’ve read nine this year so far and Kurt Vonnegut has the distinction of being the only dude, white or otherwise on the list. I figure that’s not a bad start. I just don’t care about what white dudes have to tell me. I know I am supposed to qualify that statement and remind you all that I love specific white dudes. But they know I love them and this blog isn’t their blog. It’s my blog. I get to make blanket generalizations on my blog.

On Tuesday, book fairies (Amazon) left three new books on my door. I haven’t really started any of them yet, but two are very slim—single-sitting reads. I’m re-reading Beloved. I read it in high school and skimmed it for a project in college, but have not read it as an adult. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale won both the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Margaret Atwood, the writer, has called the work “speculative” rather than traditional science fiction. It makes sense, there’s very little science in the book. That said, she’s also said in interviews that her guiding rule while writing the book was that everything had to have already taken place, no degredation was invented by Atwood. Everything in this novel is still happening.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel, Luke is trying to reassure Offred (but that’s not her name yet) that he will take care of her now that the government has closed the bank accounts of all women. This is right after they enact a law barring women from working outside the home. Luke’s reassurances that she’s only lost a job and that she’ll be protected sound patronizing to Offred and the reader. He’s not angry enough in that moment. Their relationship changes there and the reader can never see them as partners again. Offred will never have partners again, not in any real way. She’ll walk with another handmaiden to and from the shops. She’ll be paired with a Commander to breed a child for him and his wife, but she will not be a part of that child’s raising She’ll be reunited once or twice with her best friend from before, Moira. She’ll even find compatriots of sorts in Ofglen and Nick. But she is, from this moment on, isolated.

Offred, not whoever she was before the architects of a violent coup that supplants the United States government with the Christofascist Republic of Gilead, is made through this repeated isolation. Her body made be made literally docile, she suspects, through forced drug use when she’s first sent to the Red Center after her capture at the Canadian border, that is only the most physically obvious preparation. In all aspects of her new life, she is meant to be and feel alone. Camaraderie is not encouraged at the Center, though the women find ways to talk. They learn to lip read. After however, they are placed in the homes of men high enough in the organizing structure of Gilead (which we never fully understand, as Offred herself would have no real understanding of this new system of government), they are fully isolated. Offred is regarded with suspicion by one of the residence’s Marthas (maids and cooks, unable to procreate but not classified as Unwomen. Marthas still have usable bodies for work inside Gilead.)  She’d met with controlled hostility by the Commander’s wife inside the home (a Phyllis Schafly-like character named Serena Joy, who Offred recognizes as an anti-feminist religious TV personality from the time before) and outright contempt by Econowives when she leaves the house for her daily shop run.  It is not an accidental byproduct of the new system of government, but its organizing structure. Women who are separate cannot resist the subjugation. The Republic of Gilead creates categories of female bodies based on their use value. The role of the handmaiden is to be raped until she bears a successful, preferably male, child. She’s moved from qualifying man to qualifying man (three times, we’re given to understand) in the hopes of bearing “fruit.” Offred specifically does not call the Ceremony rape:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there is some, and this is what I chose.”

Offred needs to exist in a world where she has some choice in what she does, however false the choice. At the Center, the Aunts charged with re-training women into handmaids explain that before they had the freedom of, now they have freedom from. I suppose this is how Offred must be conditioned to feel. The reader knows better. In order to exist, Offred further isolates herself in this moment from the parts of her body that mark her as biologically female. The construction is entirely passive, removed by degrees from any activity on Offred’s part. In the Ceremony, The Commander’s wife sits behind Offed, who rests between the wife’s thighs. Offred is reduced to her reproductive organs. It is the only part of her the government is interested in.

It’s hard not to read (or re-read in my case) this novel as a dire warning. It isn’t just that the novel’s focus on a totalitarian government’s complete subjugation of women—reframing the role of women, not as people but as vessels (or hosts)—but also the government’s efforts to vilify Islam. The terroristic coup that precipitated the rise of Gilead is initially blamed on Islamic terrorists, as are later attacks during the nation’s founding. All of them, however, are carried out by the Sons of Jacob, a patriarchal, theocratic movement reacting against what it sees as the moral degradation of modern society. By suspending the U.S. Constitution, deporting people of color, referred to in news broadcasts as the “Children of Ham” (referring to Noah’s dark-skinned son), disallowing all second marriages, and severely delimiting the rights of women, the group is able to instill their own regime. These acts are all coordinated and should not be read as distinct.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during the second Bush administration. I don’t remember if I was in high school or college at the time, but I barely called myself a feminist and, though I saw hints of the book in attempts to roll back the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the novel was speculative. When I re-read this novel in grad school, we were in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and the Republican candidates, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, were coming out in support of personhood amendments. An abortion bill signed into law earlier that year by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, calculated the gestational age of a fetus from the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual cycle, rendering Arizona’s reproductively viable women pre-pregnant, rather than the binary pregnant or not pregnant. The presidential nominees were also campaigning on the need for immigration reforms that emphasized tighter border security. This year, I re-read the novel again a day or so after the Virginia house of delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood and the Trump administration issued a disastrous Executive Order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, while also attempting to prioritize Christian refugees over others. This is to say nothing of then-candidate Trump’s assertion on the campaign trail that women who seek abortions should be punished by the law. Not the men who get them pregnant.

These policies are coordinated and should not be read as distinct. This increasingly extreme conservative view of reproduction, generally characterized as a moral issue in political circles, is part of a larger nationalistic narrative and indicative of an underlying fear of globalization wherein the threat of the non-White, non-Christian non-American citizen must be met with more White, Christian, American bodies.  It’s part of a worldview that acts out nationalism on bodies, both the bodies it deems worthy or unworthy of citizenship and the reproductive bodies it charges with creating new Americans. When viewed this way, we see a different, possibly more frightening narrative take shape.

When I re-read the novel in 2012, a co-worker mentioned in passing that he didn’t care for it because he found Atwood to be “didactic.” He also mentioned in passing—about a decade into the War on Terror—that atheists were the most hated group in America. I don’t think I need to tell you that this man is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t need to, but I am making a point. In the novel, his body was not controlled. He would have been able to pass. Although, he was technically correct at the time (though no longer), that atheists were less popular than Muslims, that distaste is not marked by hate crimes, just eye-rolling at parties when they bring up Richard Dawkins again. He had to largely invent a means of oppression. He didn’t see it acted out on his body at borders or in state legislatures or airport security lines or calls made to his house of worship threatening to blow it up. Maybe it felt preachy to him because he recognized himself in Luke, stooping down to hush Offred when her job and economic independence were stripped from her, but before they took her name. He would want her to know that he’s just trying to be helpful, supportive. Offred—and maybe more importantly—the reader know better.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

Feminism is for Everybody

bell hooks defines feminism in the introduction of this work as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” It’s as succinct a definition as you are liable to find. As much as I love my tee shirt that reads “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” it does not encapsulate the project as well as hooks’s definition because the work of feminism doesn’t actually just involve women. The patriarchal power structures feminism seeks to undermine also affect men who do not perform their masculinity in the manner narrowly defined by a patriarchal society. Sexism exploits men as well…but that doesn’t work as well on a tee shirt.

hooks is clear that feminism will not work if feminists don’t interrogate race and class in power dynamics alongside gender. A person cannot consider herself a feminist if she is only interested in raising herself up. This is why claims on the right that women from Megyn Kelly to Margaret Thatcher present a version of feminism that ultimately misappropriates the term. Kelly and Thatcher both aligned themselves with patriarchal white supremacist* power structures in order to gain prominence.  She extends this intersection outside the United States to show how feminism must also be anti-colonialist. This is perhaps where hooks shines brightest.

When I mentioned starting Feminism is for Everybody at the end of January, I was only about 10 or 15 pages in. hooks’s writing style in the ensuing 110 pages leans away from the rigorously academic as she repeats the need for a broad feminist movement. She does this purposefully as she sees feminism in the moment she is writing, fully ensconced in academia (with all its attendant obtuseness and circular reasoning.) I wish she hadn’t positioned herself as outside the academy so thoroughly because she is not. bell hooks is a distinguished professor. I understand her concern that the constant dialogue within a university setting can start to feel bloodless and theoretical. That said, I wish she’d at least included footnotes. Instead, her work feels anecdotal. She refutes the claims of other feminists without citing them. hooks calls for a feminist movement that does not leave out non-academics and perhaps that’s why she’s presented this text in this way, but the work feels incomplete. Not the work hooks is calling on the rest of us to do, though it also still needs doing. hooks’s call to arms itself does not always feel fleshed out. When hooks asserts that some women rely on abortion as a form of birth control or that repeated dilations of the cervix cause serious health issues, I would like to know where she’s getting her information. She’s not a medical doctor and her readers have the right to know why she feels comfortable making this claim. Her writing on abortion feels moralistic and hand-wringing even as she asserts that it should be safe and legal. I would like to know what has formed this worldview. hooks does not offer me this. hooks never offers her readers footnotes because she wants to reach readers outside an academic setting. However, I fail to see how her informal style (wholly necessary for her project) would be hampered by an unobtrusive notes section.

Ultimately, this seemingly minor issue of notation and sourcing (when she is responding the theories of other feminists, I don’t need to suggest hooks’s ideas are not her own) undermines her thesis: we need a bottom to top approach to feminism. hooks calls for the distribution of picture books, movies, bumper stickers—anything and everything that would bring feminism to the masses. There’s room in there, somewhere, for the obscure academics, but hooks disregard for this academic formality seems dismissive of the work of other feminists. Their names aren’t worth mentioning, even in contrast. It’s odd. The book should function as an introduction, but without that exposition, it seems writing for folks already in the movement.

After some cursory Googling, I can’t find books writing in either anticipation or response to the recent Women’s March. She’s checked in a number of articles on the march, with good reason. I similarly couldn’t find an article or essay in which she responds to the uptick in feminism as a fashion statement. Even as she calls for this at the beginning of this book, she does not consider wearing a tee shirt to be feminism. Your tee shirt will not dismantle sexist oppression. Similarly, she wants to see feminism explored in popular music, but criticized Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier this year as being violent, hypersexualized and commodified. Considering that response to arguably the highest-profile feminist statement we’ve seen from a pop musician in the last decade, I’m not sure what hooks is holding out for. I don’t know what unproblematic feminist art looks like. I don’t know if I (or bell hooks) will ever see it.

This is starting to sound like I wish I hadn’t read this book. I am glad I read it. I don’t know if it is the primer it intends to be, but it is a worthwhile read.

Reading Syllabus note: I haven’t decided how much work I need to read by each author I list in order to consider their work read. bell hooks has written around 30 books so far. It’s wildly unrealistic to suggest that I am going to read all thirty this year.I think two to three books per author should be enough to give me a better sense of their work.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*hooks does not use “white supremacy” in the same way we see it in discussions of high-profiles members of the “alt-right” like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulous. These men have overtly declared their racist ideologies. When hooks uses the term, she’s typically referring to the way the vast majority of white people do not question the privilege whiteness affords them and do not to anything to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to marginalize people of color while still proclaiming that they are not racist. It’s not terribly difficult to be overtly not racist. It’s much harder to be anti-racist. That takes work.